Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Telescopic Evidence for Earth’s Immobility through Double Stars
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This is the fourth in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  This is the year 2017, and 2017 marks the 400th anniversary of the first observation of a double star, made in 1617 by none other than Galileo and his friend the Benedictine Fr. Benedetto Castelli.  Up until our current century, the first observation of a double star had been attributed to the Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, but in 2004 Sky & Telescope magazine published an article by Leos Ondra on how Galileo and Castelli were the first to do it (“A New View of Mizar,” July 2004).  Ondra discovered this by going through Galileo’s observing notes.  An extended version of the Sky & Telescope article is available on Ondra’s web page. The double star that Castelli and Galileo observed was Mizar, the star in the bend of the handle of the Big Dipper.  Seen with the naked eye, it appears … Continue reading

Astronomers find Conclusive Evidence for Intelligent Life on Another Planet!
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Have you ever wondered what would happen if major media outlets reported that astronomers had finally found hard scientific evidence that intelligent life exists on another planet? What would be the effect on society? On religion? How would people react? Would we be alarmed, and riot in the streets? Would we all come together and finally have world peace? Would it be the biggest event in human history? Well, wonder no more—it has happened! Surely you have seen the news reported in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets? You haven’t? Well, it’s not because they didn’t report it! Indeed, the Wall Street Journal stated on the front page that— The most extraordinary development [of the year] has been the proof afforded by the astronomical observations of the year that conscious, intelligent life exists upon the planet Mars. This is from the Wall Street Journal “Review and Outlook—Mars”, December 28, 1907 (Morning Edition), front page. … Continue reading

Astronomical Irish Women
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‘Astronomy is essentially a popular science. The general public has an indefeasible right of access to its lofty halls, which it is all the more important to keep cleared of unnecessary technical impediments’           Agnes Mary Clerke When I was president of the Irish Astronomical Society one of the most interesting guest speakers we had was Dr. Marie Bruck. She was noted for her interest in an Irish astronomer called Agnes Mary Clerke.  Back in 2007 our meeting room in Ely Place Dublin was full to  bursting point.  She delivered an eloquent talk on the centenary of the death of  this unusual lady astronomer. Her erudite presentation finished up to warm applause from all attending. Marie did her doctorate at Edinburgh University and then went on to live and work at  Dunsink Observatory in Dublin in 1950. She met and later married the director of Dunsink, Dr. Hermann Bruck.  After Dublin Marie and her husband moved to … Continue reading

Revealed Through Reason: The Phases of the Jovian Moons
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In 1614 Johann Georg Locher, a student of the Jesuit astronomer Fr. Christoph Scheiner, published a short book called Disquisitiones mathematicae, de controversiis et novitatibus astronomicis—that is, Mathematical Disquisitions, Concerning Astronomical Controversies and Novelties. Among other things, the book discussed the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter, all recently discovered by Galileo using a telescope. Toward the end of the book, Locher engaged in an interesting exercise in astronomical reasoning. He presented to his readers the figure below. And, regarding this figure, he wrote— Vnam hactenus Lunam agnouimus circa terram, quam oculus A in terra positus libere conspexit, modo silentem in B; modo dimidiam in C; alias plenam in D; alias curtatam in E…. At vero, post repertum Oculum Astronomicum, tubum inquam Opticum, plures sese aperuerunt nobis Lunae.   Quarum praecipua videtur esse Venus; ea enim in tubum GH ex I delapsa, oculo A occurrit falcata, dum puncto M Augis opposito vicina agit: & vero in K Auge … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2014 [In 2014] Heythrop College celebrated its 400th anniversary. Originally founded in Belgium to educate British Jesuits, it moved back to England during the French Reign of Terror. Located since then at various locations, it finally moved to London in 1970, becoming a part of the University of London in 1971. An anniversary like this calls for a party, of course. On June 19-20, hundreds of scholars gathered at Senate House to reflect on Jesuit scholarship. Among the celebrants were Lord Williams and Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicholas. I was invited to talk on Jesuit science. [The link above is the recording of my talk, and runs about 55 minutes; in my opinion, it’s more entertaining than this column was!] What has been the particular Jesuit mark on science? One thing that struck me was how entering the Jesuits order gave young men the chance to be a scientist regardless of family … Continue reading

The Earth-Destroying Planet Nibiru! (and Johannes Kepler)
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I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless:  Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy. —Johannes Kepler in a letter to his former teacher. Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? —from a Washington Post “Morning Mix” headline, January 5, 2017. The question was answered with “No”. You might not think that Johannes Kepler, one of the most influential astronomers in history, and “Nibiru”, the supposed Earth-destroying planet, would share any point of connection.  But they do. Nibiru is a supposed planet that purportedly passes through the solar system periodically, wreaking havoc of one sort or another.  There are various versions of the Nibiru idea.  If you Google Nibiru (something I do not recommend, unless you have a great tolerance for the worst in internet misinformation) you will find there are many Nibiru enthusiasts, but they are not all in agreement on what is supposed to happen.  … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2013 Cygnus OB2 is an association of perhaps a thousand young, massive stars, some of them a hundred times more massive than the Sun and a million times brighter, immersed in a much larger molecular cloud known as Cygnus X. Because it is so close to us (“only” 4700 light years away) we can study Cygnus OB2 in detail, comparing model predictions about the formation of such massive stars with actual observations. These studies might help us understand how such stars are born not only in our galaxy but also in more distant galaxies. But that mass of data can overwhelm our understanding. It’s impossible for any one astronomer to keep track of all the latest developments. And so in May, 2013, we held a workshop at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo where two dozen scientists could compare notes about this star formation region. “This is a meeting of the blind … Continue reading

Johannes Kepler’s Harmony of the World
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Readers of this blog may recall a post from some time ago about the William Marshall Bullitt Collection in the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville here in Kentucky.  I had 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 will interest readers of this blog (and that they can go to see and study at the University of Louisville) is Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonices Mundi or Harmony* of the World.  This post is an adaptation (with permission) of the discussion I wrote for the ASC. Readers who peruse Harmony will discover it to be partly a work of science, partly a prayer, and partly an exhibition of unconstrained creativity.  To Kepler, the universe … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Splitting the Stars
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This is the third in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  The first post was on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun like Copernicus said, and how those books probably make that statement because occasionally even reputable sources do.  The second post was on some strange things about Galileo’s efforts to argue that the tides of the sea were evidence for the Earth’s motion, and how he left out some data when he made his tides argument in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican. I noted in the second post that in Galileo’s time, telescopic observations were unlikely to prove Earth’s motion.  This was because, prior to the invention of the telescope, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun, while the sun, moon, and stars all circled … Continue reading

A Saint, a Medallion, and a Highway
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Travel through far western Indiana in the U.S. (so far western that it is almost Illinois), and you might find yourself passing by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  The college was founded by Théodore Guérin (1798–1856, birth name Anne-Thérèse Guérin), a remarkable woman.  She travelled from Europe to the American frontier in 1840, along with Sisters Olympiade Boyer, St. Vincent Ferrer Gagé, Basilide Sénéschal, Mary Xavier Lerée, and Mary Liguori Tiercin.  They arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, and proceeded to build up an order of nuns and a college (the first institution of higher education for women in Indiana)—all while managing in an alien culture and clashing with the local bishop.  Saint Mother Théodore Guérin was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  She even has a section of U.S. Highway named after her—part of US 150 near Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the “Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Memorial Highway,” so named in 2014 by Indiana Governor Mitch … Continue reading

Sketching Eddington Crater with the Grubb refractor at Dunsink Observatory Dublin – a very nice memory
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Last night I was looking up at the moon, it brought back to me a wonderful April evening in 2007 when the phase was exactly the same. That evening was to offer me a great experience in lunar sketching. When I was about fourteen years old I had my first looked through the South Refractor at Dunsink Observatory in Dublin. For months I had pestered my dad to bring me out there, a bit of a long drive in those days, before motorways existed. Jupiter was on view that evening, it was crystal clear. The planet must have been quite high as I could look through the Grubb standing on the floor of the dome. At that time I had my own little white 50 mm Tasco telescope on a short plastic tripod. There was not much to see in it, however the moon always got a look. Since that first planet view at Dunsink I wanted to revisit the … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading