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Michell, John

stars black holes objects

( c. 1724–93) British astronomer: discovered double stars, estimated stellar distances and predicted existence of black holes.

A Cambridge graduate in divinity, Michell was professor of geology there for 2 years before becoming a village rector near Leeds, a post he held for life.

His scientific work was mainly in astronomy, where he made several significant contributions. He proposed the existence of double stars as a way of explaining the large number of apparent close pairs that had been observed, which he argued could not be due merely to the chance of the two stars being near the same line of sight. In 1803 found observational proof for his proposal.

In a particularly far-sighted suggestion, Michell proposed in 1783 that if stars were sufficiently massive and compact then light would not be able to escape from their surface; such objects are today known as black holes. He thought that there might be a large number of black holes, and further suggested that they might be detectable through their gravitational effect on nearby objects.

Michell was also the first to make a realistic estimate of a stellar distance, using a neat argument based on apparent brightness. He deduced a distance of 460 000 AU for the star Vega, about a quarter of today’s value.

Michelson, Albert Abraham [next] [back] Micheaux, Oscar (1884–1951)

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