Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Omitted Data and the Tides
avatar

Last week I wrote a post on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun, as Copernicus had said it did.  This post tells a strange story about Galileo’s efforts to prove that the Earth circles the sun. In Galileo’s time, no telescopic observation was likely to prove Earth’s motion.  Before the telescope had even been invented, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun while the sun, moon, and stars circled the Earth.  Brahe’s theory was mathematically and observationally identical to Copernicus’s heliocentric theory insofar as the Earth, sun, moon, and planets were concerned: the “machinery” of both systems was the same, it was just that in Brahe’s the Earth stood still, whereas in Copernicus’s the sun stood still.  Galileo’s telescopic observations proved that Venus circled the sun—but Venus circled the sun in both Brahe’s geocentric theory and in Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.  … Continue reading

Eratosthenes Drawing Drama plus an Experiment opportunity for schools all over the planet
avatar

On that cold evening back in 2007 Eratosthenes looked powerful in its position emerging into the suns warm rays. Rupes Recta was also inviting and Plato almost called me again. Even drenched in sunlight Plato’s steel grey floor carried those unmistakable flame shaped shadows. Eratosthenes is a truly dramatic crater, a sweeping mountain chain whips away from it in a visual series, of broken, deep shadows. Montes Appeninus is cut and chopped first by Mons Wolf, and then by Mons Ampere. Next in line, Christian Huygens name is lent to Mons Huygens named in honour of the discoverer of Saturn’s largest moon Titan . This high mountain (164,000ft) is a billion miles away from those primal methane or ethane seas discovered by the Cassini Huygens mission on one of its routine flybys. Mons Bradley and Mons Hadley cradle the Apollo 15 lunar landing area from 1971. A mission that put wheels on the moon for the first time. This wonderfully … Continue reading

Punished for Proving
avatar

History of astronomy turns up in unexpected places.  Unfortunately that history is often poorly presented.  Consider this example, found in a children’s book called C is for Ciao: An Italy Alphabet by Elissa D. Grodin and Governor Mario Cuomo: G is for Galileo, punished when he proved that the sun was sitting still and the earth’s the one that moved On the same page is— Until the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus discovered that the sun is the center of our solar system… people since the second century had thought the sun revolved around the earth. —and— In developing the telescope, Galileo was able to prove that Copernicus’s theory was correct.  This caused a problem with church leaders of the day, who—disrespectful of scientific facts—were offended by the idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. But Copernicus did not discover that the sun is the center—he hypothesized that it was.  Galileo did not prove that the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2014 Isaac Newton thought that planetary orbits in our solar system were kept stable by God’s direct intervention; they were proof to him that God existed. A hundred years later, the great French mathematician and skeptic Pierre-Simon Laplace described his new orbital theory to Napoleon and supposedly quipped of God’s role, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” In fact, it is bad theology to reduce God to merely a gap-filling hypothesis. Only recently, however, have we learned that, actually, planetary motions may sometimes not be so stable after all. One of the pioneers of studying chaos theory in celestial dynamics is Jack Wisdom, an MIT professor (and MacArthur “genius”) who is visiting the Vatican Observatory this month. He’s working now on modeling the complex interaction between the Moon’s orbit and spin with the spin and orbit of the Earth. It’s all tied to the larger issue of the origin of … Continue reading

Musings From a 7th Grade Biology Class
avatar

When people ask me what I do for a living I generally respond:  For the past 16 years I have been teaching science to the hormonally impaired. Here in the United States that means teaching sixth through eighth grade, i.e., my students range from 10 to 14 years old.  These students are either entering the fun age of puberty, or are in the complete throws of hormonal impairment , which means they have other things on their mind besides studying. About this time of year I usually enter into the biology phase of science with my 7th graders; and inevitably, the introduction of cells leads to a discussion of evolution and God. I teach in a small town in southeast Michigan called New Haven. The religious base of this town is either Baptist or Lutheran, along with some Catholics and various other religions. When I bring up that prokaryotic cells eventually evolved into eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms into complex multi-celled … Continue reading

Another Post About Old Science Books? Well, they’re cool!
avatar

If you like astronomy’s history then the University of Louisville (UofL) in Louisville, Kentucky, was a good place to be this past November 5th.  On that day the Kentucky Academy of Science was holding its 102nd annual meeting.  To go along with that meeting, the Archives and Special Collections of UofL exhibited a selection of books from its William Marshall Bullitt collection of rare works in mathematics and astronomy (which happens to be featured in a recent V.O. video).  Prof. Delinda Buie of UofL and I were on hand to talk to KAS attendees.  Almost all the attendees were scientists who work in Kentucky.  Many of them were seeing these historic works of science for the first time, and were absolutely enjoying themselves. Below is a small collection of photographs that I took during the exhibit.  Enjoy.  You can’t have too much of this stuff. … Continue reading

Vatican Observatory astronomers getting research published
avatar

This is the blog of the Vatican Observatory.* V.O. director Guy Consolmagno is the Blog Boss. Most of the posts here are intended for an audience that is interested in science and has basic scientific literacy; the posts are generally not for conveying to working astronomers the latest research to come out of the V.O. But maybe it would be a good idea from time to time to highlight the latest V.O. research, because the V.O.’s astronomers are publishing stuff in the astronomical journals, and thus contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. So, here are some recent publications from V.O. astronomers with whom I have some direct connection.  At a later date I will do a post featuring publications by other V.O. astronomers. Guy Consolmagno, V.O. Director and El Jefe del Blog for The Catholic Astronomer! “Olivine on Vesta as exogenous contaminants brought by impacts: Constraints from modeling Vesta’s collisional history and from impact simulations,” by D. Turrini, V. … Continue reading

New Named Asteroids – Feb. 12, 2017
avatar

The day before the 4th anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, the IAU Minor Planet Center released a new circular: this one, however, contains only the citations for newly names minor planets – it is completely devoid of the usual list of asteroid and comet observations. Here are the new named minor planets for Feb. 12, 2017: (6117) Brevardastro = 1985 CZ1 Discovered 1985 Feb. 12 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. Brevard is a county on the east coast of Florida and is known as the “space coast”. Brevard county is the home of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, where many of the early manned space flights originated. The Brevard Astronomical Society is a very active amateur astronomy community in Brevard county. (6118) Mayubosh = 1986 QX3 Discovered 1986 Aug. 31 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. There is a Japanese poem whose subject is Mt. Bizan in the Manyosyu, an anthology of the Nara Era. … Continue reading

Bringing Mars to Earth – Educational Outreach
avatar

  Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all. Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s … Continue reading

Bored at the Speed of Light
avatar

A proper “to-scale” representation of the solar system is hard to make. This is because the distances within the solar system are vast, compared to the sizes of the sun and the planets, and because there is so much variation in size among the sun and the planets themselves. Thus representations of the solar system inevitably show everything too close together, and too similar in size. But recently I was introduced to a nice online effort at a “to-scale” representation or model of the solar system — click here to have a look at it. “Thank you” to Fr. Joseph-Mary Hertzog, O.P., who introduced me to this model. The scale of this model is such that, on a modestly large screen, the moon is a single pixel in size, while the sun is roughly the size of an orange. The distances between planets is so great that an effort to manually scroll through this model from one planet to another … Continue reading

Across the Universe: View from afar
avatar

  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2013 I traveled to Tucson to measure the fluctuating brightness of some small bodies in the outer solar system using the Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope. By how often they brighten and dim, we measure how fast these bodies spin; by how much their brightness changes during these cycles, we get a measure of their irregular shapes. It is not particularly thrilling work. We point the telescope at a given object; take a three-minute exposure with our electronic camera; and then another exposure; and another; and another… These objects typically take about eight hours or more per spin; so we observe one body per night as it rises, crosses the sky, and sets in the west… checking the images for clarity, tweaking the focus, watching the skies to make sure that clouds are not moving in. (We got three clear nights out of five.) Data in hand, our work is still … Continue reading

Astronomy in Art & Architecture: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
avatar

Blogging for “The Catholic Astronomer” has prompted me to keep my eye and camera out for instances of math and science (and astronomy in particular) appearing in public art and architecture, because that seems like great subject matter for the blog.  Instances of public math and science (by this I mean something more than generic stars on the ceiling of a building) are rarer than I was expecting when I first got the idea to blog about them.*  However, as noted in a previous post, I found some in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  And, in November I found this interesting objet d’art in Minneapolis, Minnesota: It is titled “Prophecy of the Ancients,” a 1988 work by Brower Hatcher.  According to the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, In his stone and steel-mesh sculpture…, [Hatcher] melds the logic of an engineer with a visionary’s impulse to transcend time and space.  A futuristic dome, composed of thousands of flexible wire polyhedrons, rests atop six mock-Egyptian … Continue reading