Cassini, Gian Domenico
b. June 8, 1625, Perinaldo, Republic of Genoa
d. Sept. 14, 1712, Paris
(Italian), French JEAN-DOMINIQUE CASSINI, Italian-born French astronomer who, among others, discovered Cassini's division, the dark gap between the rings A and B of Saturn; he also discovered four of Saturn's moons. In addition, he was the first to record observations of the zodiacal light.
Cassini's early studies were principally observations of the Sun, but after he obtained more powerful telescopes, he turned his attention to the planets. Observing the shadows of Jupiter's satellites as they passed between that planet and the Sun, he was able to measure Jupiter's rotational period. In 1666, after similar observations of Mars, he found the value of 24 hours 40 minutes for Mars's rotational period; it is now given as 24 hours 37 minutes 22.6 seconds. Two years later he compiled a table of the positions of Jupiter's satellites that was used in 1675 by the Danish astronomer Ole Rømer to establish that the speed of light is finite. In addition, he wrote several memoirs on flood control, and he experimented extensively in applied hydraulics.
Hearing of Cassini's discoveries and work, King Louis XIV of France invited him to Paris in 1669 to join the recently formed Académie Royale des Sciences. Cassini assumed the directorship of the Observatoire de Paris after it was completed in 1671, and two years later he became a French citizen.
Continuing the studies begun in Italy, Cassini discovered the Saturnian satellites Iapetus (1671), Rhea (1672), Tethys (1684), and Dione (1684). Between 1671 and 1679 he made observations of the Moon, compiling a large map, which he presented to the Académie. In 1675 he discovered Cassini's division and expressed the opinion that Saturn's rings were swarms of tiny moonlets too small to be seen individually, an opinion that has been substantiated. In 1683, after a careful study of the zodiacal light, he concluded that it was of cosmic origin and not a meteorological phenomenon, as some proposed.
In 1683 Cassini began the measurement of the arc of the meridian (longitude line) through Paris. From the results, he concluded that the Earth is somewhat elongated (it is actually somewhat flattened at the poles). A traditionalist, he accepted the solar theory of Nicolaus Copernicus within limits, but he rejected the theory of Johannes Kepler that planets travel in ellipses and proposed that their paths were certain curved ovals, which came to be known as Cassinians, or ovals of Cassini. Although Cassini resisted new theories and ideas, his discoveries and observations unquestionably place him among the most important astronomers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
French OBSERVATOIRE DE PARIS, national astronomical observatory of France, under the direction of the Academy of Sciences. It was founded by Louis XIV at the instigation of J.-B. Colbert, and construction at the site in Paris began in 1667. Gian Domenico Cassini was the first of four generations of his family to hold the post of director of the observatory.
The observatory was enlarged in 1730, 1810, 1834, 1850, and 1951. The Paris building now houses the headquarters of the International Time Bureau, which standardizes the time determinations of the world's observatories. In 1926 the solar observatory at Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, was taken over by the Paris Observatory. A radio astronomy station is maintained at Nançay, about 160 km (100 miles) south of Paris.
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