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Bust of Maximilian Hell at the Maria Enzersdorfer Friedhof in Lower Austria_

Hungarian Scientist Born 300 Years Ago

D&T
May 15, 2020

Hungarian astronomer Miksa Hell (a.k.a. Maximilian Hell) was born as Rudolf Maximilian Höll on May 15, 1720 in the northern Hungarian town of Selmecbánya (present-day Slovakia). He became an internationally known scientist. The crater Hell on the Moon is named after him.

In 1770, Miksa Hell took part in the Hungarian expedition to Norway to observe the transit of Venus. His adventures were highlighted for Diplomacy&Trade's WittyLeaks section last year by the Norwegian Ambassador to Hungary, Olav Berstad as follows:

In 1768, Danish-Norwegian king Christian VII through diplomatic channels requested empress Maria Theresa to make her eminent astronomer Maximilian Hell available for a scientific expedition to 70° North and 31° East, namely, to the island town Vardø in Northern Norway. And why? In order to observe the rare passage of planet Venus in front of the Sun on June 3-4, 1769 in conditions of midnight sun. This was an astronomical event of the highest order and many countries entered a scientific race in order to get the best measurements, which would make it possible to calculate the true distance between Earth and the Sun.

The empress gave her consent. However, there was a problem which the king was able to solve. Maximilian Hell, mathematician, astronomer and many other things was an ordained catholic priest of the Jesuit order. And so was his assistant, pater János Sajnovics. Both Hell and Sajnovics were born on the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary and regarded themselves as Hungarians. The king waived the prohibition against Jesuits and other Papists (even possible capital punishment) for entering the Danish-Norwegian kingdom, and they set out from Vienna more than a year before the actual date. They were advised to be discreet with their religious practice and not address each other or present themselves as Pater this or that. Pater Hell called himself professor Hell. All went well, except that the voyage along the Norwegian coast by boat had more than one perilous moment. But aided by a small Danish-Norwegian contingent of officials and helpers, they and all the scientific equipment and other supplies arrived safely in Vardø.

Along the coast, in small trading and fishing villages, they came across a non-Norwegian speaking local population, the Sami or Lapps. The scholarly Jesuits quickly discovered that there were similarities between the Sami language and Hungarian, and later (1770) János Sajnovics produced a linguistic study of great interest and relevance even today.

The two Jesuits arrived in Vardø as early as in October 1768 and stayed the whole winter in that very remote part of Europe. The town was built around a well-equipped and supplied fortress, marking Norwegian territory both in relation to Russia and to Sweden. Nevertheless, their stay must have been utter hardship, especially in comparison with civilized Vienna, but probably even more so because of a local habit of hard partying with alcohol and women every weekend during the winter – the dark period when the sun did not rise above the horizon. A couple of weeks into their ordeal ‘Professor’ Hell and ‘Mr.’ Sajnovics found reason to limit their participation in these parties. Probably a loss to the locals who were in need of some civilized manners.

When the days grew longer in the spring, Hell and Sajnovics ventured further from Vardø, in the Varanger area, exploring flora and fauna, ebb and tide, aurora borealis and other phenomena not common in Central Europe, to say the least. Sometimes they avoided traveling in pair even when accompanied by locals, fearing to come across carnivore animals or cannibals in the wilderness. The hope was that at least one of them would survive in order to make the crucial astronomical observation.

At the end, the observation of Venus and the Sun went very well. The thick clouds which had obscured the Sun the whole day on June 3, 1769 lifted a few minutes before 21:15 when the Venus transit was about to start. The transit took about six hours, and the Midnight Sun was also clearly visible at the crucial moment when Venus exited.

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