Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2016 It has been a month of anniversaries. Exactly four hundred years ago (2016) Galileo first got into hot water with the Church over the Copernican system. Starting with a hearing of the Holy Office on 23 February, the affair stretched across all of spring 1616 including Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine on 26 February, and the formal censure of Copernicus’ work issued on 5 March. Curiously, Galileo’s works were not mentioned at that time. (It wasn’t Galileo’s first run-in with the Church. In 1604 he had been turned in to the Inquisition by his mother, who didn’t like the bad names he’d called her or the fact that he’d skip Mass to spend time with his courtesan girlfriend, later mother to his three children.) By the end of the 19th century, of course, the Church view on astronomy had changed. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) essentially … Continue reading

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

Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015 Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily. They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just … Continue reading

Punished for Proving
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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

Copernicus’s On the Revolutions—A Book That Continues to Challenge
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Last week’s post featured old science books from the William Marshall Bullitt Collection in the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville here in Kentucky, and readers of this blog may recall an earlier post about the collection, too.  I currently have the enjoyable task of studying the books in the collection and writing discussions of them for the ASC—discussions specifically intended for a diverse audience that might include scholars, students at varying levels, and interested members of the general public.  One of the books in the collection that no doubt would interest readers of this blog (and that readers can go to see and study at the University of Louisville) is Nicolas Copernicus’s 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Cœlestium, or On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres.  This post is an adaptation (with permission) of the discussion I wrote for the ASC. De Revolutionibus is a book that challenged scientists and non-scientists alike when it … Continue reading

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

A small brag for one of our bloggers
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We are very happy to report that our blogger Chris Graney just got the finalized contract on a new book: The Mathematical Disquisitions of Locher and Scheiner: the ‘Booklet of Theses’ immortalized by Galileo (by C M Graney) is going to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press. All the writing and peer review is finished; it is currently in production and the Press is aiming to have it in print this fall. The book is his translation from Latin of Johann Georg Locher’s 1614 Disquisitiones Mathematicae.  Galileo devoted a fair bit of space in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to picking on this book of Locher’s. The original (Latin) version of Locher’s book is available on-line, with a thumbnails view also available. Note – lots and lots of pictures!  (That’s one reason to translate it. Another is that is short. And another is that Galileo talks about it a lot.) Chris tells me that he translated Locher with an eye for classroom … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
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This column first ran in The Tablet in January, 2013 Over New Years [2013], Pope Benedict welcomed 40,000 attendees to the Taizé Youth Gathering in Rome. A few days later, a somewhat smaller number of them attended my workshop on the life and faith of an astronomer. My setting for the talk most appropriate: the marvelous Jesuit church of St. Ignatius. There are a number of astronomical connections to this church. It was designed in the 1600s by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit priest who was also quite a good astronomer, the first to observe a comet with a telescope. (Galileo never forgave him for that scoop.) Cardinal Bellarmine is buried beneath an altar of the church. Just two years before Grassi’s comets, Galileo had been questioned by Bellarmine, who finally gave him a document certifying that he was no heretic. Bellarmine wasn’t convinced of Galileo’s science, however; the heliocentric system was a radical change, and accepting it then would have … Continue reading

Monsignor Bouchet’s Telescope
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Astronomy pops up in unexpected places.  Consider, for example, this fantastic old refracting telescope: This telescope has an aperture of roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters).  The tube appears to be brass.  The telescope has a very stout wooden case, visible in the picture above.  The picture below gives another view of the telescope, the case (now open), and an eyepiece for the telescope (lying to the left of the telescope). By now you have probably noticed the telescope’s surroundings, namely the monstrances and crucifix on display in the background.  Why is an old telescope sitting on a table, surrounded by religious articles?  Because this is the telescope of Monsignor Michael Bouchet (1827 to 1903), former vicar-general of the Diocese of Louisville, Kentucky.  It is housed within the Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget Library, which itself is part of the Archdiocesan History Center of Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption.  Tim Tomes, a parishioner at the Cathedral who does a lot of work … Continue reading

Dr. Vera Rubin
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I asked fellow Vatican astronomer Fr Chris Corbally to write a few words about his friend and colleague, Dr. Vera Rubin: Dr. Vera Rubin died on Sunday, Christmas Day, in Princeton, N.J. She was 88. Vera had been a longtime staff astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was married to Dr. Robert J. Rubin, a mathematician and chemist who predeceased her, and they had four children, all of whom became doctoral level scientists. These facts appear simple, but what a remarkable and delightful person Vera was, especially for us at the Vatican Observatory! Though I had met her in passing at meetings of the American Astronomical Society, I came to know her and her husband Bob during the first Vatican Observatory Summer School in 1986. The “VOSS” was the brainchild of Father Martin McCarthy, a staff member of the Vatican Observatory from 1958 to 1999, and it was initiated with the help of the then director, Father George Coyne. … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in December 2009 The fall of 2009 found me team-teaching a course called “Dynamic Evolution” at LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit university in Syracuse, New York. The biblical scholar from Leuven, Fr. Jan Lambrecht SJ, concentrated on the world-view of the New Testament in the first half of the course; my task was to bring the students forward through the cosmologies of the middle ages and the scientific revolution, to present day views on space and time: quantum theory and relativity. It’s been an exhausting journey. For many of the undergraduates, the shocking message has been how little we know for certain. After an academic path focused mostly on memorizing “facts” they must now come to the realization that everything they’ve been taught is, if not exactly wrong, then at least woefully incomplete. With everything we learn, we also learn how much more there is to know. Certainly, the world of certainties is an illusion. … Continue reading