This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on July 19, 2017.
My post for next week will feature Fr. Riccioli and the Coriolis Effect,
so revisiting this topic seems like a good idea.
The Coriolis Effect is an apparent deflection of projectiles and falling bodies that is caused by the rotation of the Earth. It is named for Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, a French scientist who described it mathematically in the early 19th century. It is responsible for the rotation of weather patterns such as hurricanes. But it turns out that a century and a half before Coriolis did his work, other scientists were discussing the Coriolis Effect. These scientists were Jesuits—Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, who discussed the effect in his 1651 book Almagestum Novum, and Fr. Claude François Milliet Dechales, who discussed the effect and included some nice simple diagrams of it in his 1674 book Cursus seu Mundus Mathematicae.
What is interesting about this is that Riccioli and Dechales were discussing an effect that they did not believe to exist. Their whole point was that, were Earth rotating like Copernicus says, that rotation would produce observable effects—deflection of projectiles and falling bodies. Since these effects are not observed, that is an argument against Copernicus, and in favor of an immobile Earth.
Now, they were wrong about the effect not existing. The effect exists, but it is much harder to observe than one might expect. Indeed, even Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke in 1679-1680 tried, without success, to use the effect to prove Earth’s rotation.
How does the Coriolis Effect work? Well, let’s let Dechales explain it—he explains it well, using very clear illustrations. First the deflection of falling bodies:
A ball F, hanging from the top of a tower directly above point G, is dropped. While the ball descends, point G is carried [by Earth’s rotation] into I. I propose the ball F to be unable to arrive at point G (now at I). This is because the ball when positioned at F has a momentum [impetus] requisite for passing through arc FH (through which the tower top moves while the ball descends) which is greater than that requisite for arc GI. Therefore, if the ball is dropped, it will not arrive at point I, but will advance forward farther [to L].
Then, the deflection of projectiles:
Likewise, consider a cannon discharged in the direction of one of the poles [of the Earth]. During the time in which the ball would traverse the distance MO, the cannon [originally at M] would be carried to N, while the target [originally at O] would be carried to P. While the ball was at M, it had from the rotation of the Earth momentum able to carry it through arc MN (which is greater than arc OP) during the time required to travel from M to O. But the ball, separated from the cannon, conserves this momentum whole [totum hunc impetum conservat]. Therefore it should run through a distance greater than OP, and consequently not hit the target.
Note how Dechales illustrates the cannon ball passing to the right of the target. For a more detailed discussion from the Cornell University ArXiv preprint server, click here.
If you used Google today you certainly noticed today’s Google Doodle scientist—George Nicholas Papanicolaou (Georgios Nikolaou Papanikolaou), inventor of the Pap smear test that enabled the early discovery of cervical cancer and other diseases. There are a few bits of information that suggests that Papanikolaou was a scientist of faith:
- He was buried from St. Sophia Orthodox church in Miami.
- The journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine has an interview with Dr. Neda Voutsa-Perdiki, who wrote a 2016 book in Greek whose title in translation is Dr George and Mache-Mary Papanicolaou - As I knew them (published by the Medical Council of Athens, Greece). Dr. Voutsa-Perdiki states that “The secret of his [Papanicolaou’s] scientific success was hard work, dedication, love of research, faith and the courage he gained from his wife and colleagues.” Dr. Voutsa-Perdiki also states that “He [Papanicolaou] frequently referred to the Easter season, especially to the mystagogy of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and the byzantine melodies of the church. In Kyme, as a child, he used to sing at the church those days himself. For this reason, he used to spend his Easter holidays with his nephew Vaggelis Stamatiou and his family, who lived close to Dr Papanicolaou's house in Douglaston.”
- An article in the Singapore Medical Journal notes that “In 1904, he graduated from medical school with top honours. After graduation, Papanicolaou worked in the military as an assistant surgeon for a short time, then returned to his hometown, Kimi. For the next two years, he cared for leprosy patients on the outskirts of his hometown. These outcasts were socially isolated, and Papanicolaou gave them both medical and personal care with compassion and grace.”
- An article in the New York Times from 1978 about the planting of a tree at Cornell University Manhattan Medical College in honor of Papanicolaou notes that the tree (which was grown from a seedling obtained from the tree under which the Greek physician Hippocrates is said to have received patients in the latter part of the fifth century B.C.) was blessed by The Most Rev. Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America at the time.
This post is just something I quickly put together based on a very little bit of research, so please do not consider it any sort of definitive statement on Dr. Papanicolaou. If you like this little post, and you like how it is a completely different perspective from anything else you would have found when you clicked that Google Doodle, then consider clicking right here and supporting the outfit that makes this possible—the Vatican Observatory Foundation. The VOF is the outfit that keeps the Vatican’s U.S. telescope (on Mount Graham in Arizona) running. That’s why this blog exists—to keep that telescope doing science. Support the blog—support the telescope—support science.
How often do astronomical objects appear in art and architecture? That seems to depend on where you are. If you are in a museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, you might see very little. If you are in a market square in San Antonio, Texas, you might find yourself surrounded by it.
When my wife and I were in Cincinnati to visit the observatory there (click here and here for posts on that observatory), we decided to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum. The goal of our visit was to find astronomical imagery in art work. Astronomy in art and architecture has always seemed to me to be a great topic for The Catholic Astronomer. It is something that might appeal to a very broad variety of people (click here for posts on the “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” theme). Of course it is something that might especially appeal to people interested in astronomy, and to Catholics (given the emphasis on art and architecture in the Catholic Church).
But the Cincinnati Art Museum turned out to be largely devoid of astronomical imagery. There were some representations of the moon on “tall-case clocks” (“grandfather clocks”)—these were cool, as you will see below. There were also some very generic representations of the sun or moon as part of a few paintings—but even these were pretty rare.
The lack of astronomical imagery in the Cincinnati Art Museum came to mind again when we were in San Antonio. We stopped by the Market Square there (“the largest Mexican Market in the U.S.”, according to various sources). In the market, astronomical imagery was everywhere—representations of the sun, moon, and stars abounded. As you will see below, these were not “realistic” representations; not depictions of astronomical objects as they truly appear to the eye. However, more astronomical imagery could be found on one wall or shelf in the San Antonio market than in the entire Cincinnati Art Museum.
So, let us first look at astronomical imagery in
The pictures above might not necessarily include every bit of astronomical imagery that can be found in the Cincinnati Art Museum, but they include a lot of it. Now, by way of comparison, let us first look at astronomical imagery in
THE MARKET SQUARE:
These pictures definitely do not include every bit of astronomical imagery that can be found in the San Antonio Market Square—not even close. When it came to astronomical imagery, the Market Square beat the Art Museum easily.
Many different astronomers and their work have been featured on this blog. We’ve seen some of the research being produced by Vatican Observatory astronomers. Brenda Frye of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona was a regular contributor to the blog for quite a while. Fernando Comerón has contributed a guest post about his work at the European Southern Observatory, where he gets to observe with some of the world’s largest telescopes. Larry Lebofsky has recently written about observing with the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt. Graham in Arizona. But today I would like to give readers of The Catholic Astronomer a different perspective on doing astronomical research.
Meet Chad Howard, a colleague of mine at Jefferson Community & Technical College (JCTC) here in Louisville, Kentucky. He is doing work that I think will be of interest to readers of The Catholic Astronomer, and he is doing it for reasons that readers will also find cool. Chad is studying a star cluster: NGC 2244. If you are familiar with the Rosette Nebula, located to the east of Orion, you know the star cluster he is studying. This is because NGC 2244 comprises the stars seen at the center of that nebula.
Chad’s primary job is the same as mine—he is a physics and astronomy professor at JCTC. But he is also pursuing a doctorate from the University of Louisville, and studying NGC 2244 is part of his work toward that degree. I asked Chad to tell me a bit about this work. Here is what he had to say:
My research involves a new study of the central cluster in the Rosette Nebula, NGC 2244. I am attempting to determine an updated count of the number of stars present in the cluster, along with their distances and motions. The goal is to eventually assemble these into a 3-dimensional computer model that could be examined or rotated as needed by other astronomers when studying the cluster. As a secondary project, I’m attempting to identify any variable stars in the cluster by making long time-scale observations.
The new research is primarily motivated by recent data taken by two orbiting telescopes: GAIA, run by the European Space Agency, and the NASA-run TESS. Both of these are precision instruments with the capability of taking measurements more finely detailed than ever before. This data is being used for both the population count and the distance determinations.
I’m also making use of ground-based observations taken by telescopes affiliated with the University of Louisville. First, the Moore Observatory in Oldham County; then also the Mt. Lemmon observatory in Arizona and Mt. Kent in Queensland, Australia. A joint observation by all three will potentially allow the identifications of variable stars.
The Rosette Nebula in general has been a fascinating object of study, and most of the data from orbiting satellites is publically available online for anyone with the desire and motivation to sift through it. Besides its aesthetically lovely appearance, it’s also close enough to be readily studied by multiple instruments both on the ground and in person. That allows for a lot of cross-checking and correlation, and all using data either from a regional easily-accessed telescope, or publically available data from orbital instruments.
The eventual hope is to create a unified, updated source of data and research for NGC 2244 that can be of use to all other astronomers.
Chad does not have to do this work. He only recently was promoted to the rank of Full Professor at JCTC. He has “made the grade”, in other words. Moreover, we community college professors are not required to do research. “Publish or perish” is not part of our world. That doctorate Chad is working on will not improve his situation at JCTC—he has already reached the top of the professoriate. The typical community college wants its professors to have a master's degree in their field, and thus that is what the majority of us, including both me and Chad, have. Chad's doctoral work is just gilding on the lily, so to speak. The fact is, our primary responsibility as community college professors is teaching. Indeed, the “Professional Development” requirements for someone who has just made Full Professor are none too tough—he could just attend the college’s “Professional Development Day”, and do a few other things, and that would just about cover his “Professional Development” obligations. In other words, Chad is doing this astronomical research when he could be sitting around on his laurels, eating bon-bons, metaphorically speaking.
I asked Chad to talk about why he does this work, rather than enjoying those metaphorical laurels and bon-bons. Chad’s answer:
It may seem trivial to many people—but when I’m analyzing something like a spreadsheet of new distance measurements, and I compare them to the most recent papers on the Rosette Nebula to discover that the new distance estimate is significantly different than what has been previously published, there’s a real thrill to realize that I’m the first human being that has learned that small new piece of information. That it’s not just something I’m learning out of a textbook, but real data that humanity is sifting for the first time, and I get to be a part of that human project.
This is what keeps bringing me back to the research after years of teaching, and after having reached the final rank in my academic institution. Those achievements have been satisfying, no doubt, but the science is the reason I got into teaching in the first place. It began with my attending Space Camp as a teenager. After that, I knew that I wanted to do “space stuff.” Then in college, I asked my advisors what major would put me closest to studying space and being on the forefront of new discoveries, before it filtered down to popular level programs on television. The answer I was provided was “physics,” and it’s been a fun ride ever since.
Make no mistake, I love teaching. My mother was a teacher up until retirement, and I’ve always loved the collegiate world. So creating a career in the institutions of higher learning always seemed more likely for me than a strictly industry-oriented career. When I’m teaching astronomy, though, few things seem to catch the attention of students more than when I’m able to tie in the topics they’re studying to things that are being studied right now by their own teacher! It’s one of the few times undergraduates really get to peek at what it looks like to be an actual scientist, and not just curriculum in their textbooks.
So that thrill of discovery, that engagement with the students, and the sheer love of learning how the universe operates all rolls together into a big driving force that refuses to let me settle into cruise control as the years pass. Missing out on the steady rhythm of discovery in the scholarly community would make my world a much more calcified and uninteresting place, and not one in which I’d like to live.
I can “second” Chad’s comments about students seeming to particularly engage with material when they know that their professor is actually studying the subject at hand and contributing to the body of knowledge about that subject. Community college students often express worries about whether they are getting a “real college” class, or whether they are just getting an education from a textbook. This may be part of why they seem to really appreciate knowing that their professor is part of the research community. That worry is generally misplaced, as community college professors as a whole are among the “All Stars” of the academic world. Yes, that is a biased bit of boasting, and yes, there are those community college professors who are not so great. But the fact is, in a university, where professors focus on research as much or even more than on teaching, not everyone is necessarily cranking out great research; some may produce little at all. By contrast, in a community college, where all the professors are sinking the vast majority of their effort into teaching, everyone is producing something—everyone is teaching five classes a semester. So in that way the particular enthusiasm of Chad’s students to have a professor who is doing astronomical research may be a little misplaced, but no matter—the good thing is that the students are engaged.
So, readers, this has been a different perspective on astronomical research. The Moore Observatory’s telescopes are much smaller than the VATT, and not located on a high, dry, remote, and dark Arizona mountain. And they are absolutely puny compared to what is at the European Southern Observatory. Chad Howard’s primary responsibilities as a professor are to his students, not to research. Nevertheless, some cool astronomical research is going on, right here in River City—Louisville, Kentucky—and it is happening just because he thinks it is cool. And it is even trickling down to students. In my opinion, science just doesn’t get much better than that.
This is a re-posting of a blog written by Dr. Darin Hayton, a historian of science at Haverford College in December 2014. Darin obtained his Ph.D. from the History and Philosophy of Science program at the University of Notre Dame, and it is through Notre Dame that I got to know him: The University of Notre Dame Press asked him to review my translation of Johann Georg Locher's Mathematical Disquisitions, which Notre Dame published in 2017.
This past semester all my students were certain that Christopher Columbus proved that the world is round, and that prior to Columbus everyone thought that the world was flat. When I asked Darin if I could use this post, since my students had put this subject on my mind, he noted in response that for over a decade of teaching he has found that nearly all of the students in his introductory-level courses have been taught the flat-earth story. He added, "Last term one of my students apparently engaged in a weeks-long argument with her father, who despite the material she was bringing home from class for him to read insisted that the medieval world did indeed believe the earth was flat." Haverford in Pennsylvania and Jefferson Community & Technical College in Kentucky are two very different institutions serving very different student populations. Yet students at both Haverford and Jefferson have been taught that people used to think they lived on a flat Earth.
For a discussion of how you can see for yourself that Earth is round, and how any traveler at any time would see that Earth is round, see my post It’s a Round, Round World. Meanwhile, enjoy Dr. Hayton's comments:
For generations now American school children have learned that Christopher Columbus proved the earth was round. They have learned that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his seamen would sail off the edge of the earth or plunge into a chasm. They know that Columbus persevered and eventually overcame religious opposition. And they know that Columbus was right. At its core, the Columbus story pits humble rationality against dogmatic obscurantism in a sort of secular inversion of the David and Goliath story. Judging from the students in my intro classes, the Columbus story is thriving in American schools.
The only problem, as any historian or historian of science will tell you: it’s a myth.
Like any beloved myth, the Columbus story mixes truths and truthiness, something that seems so natural and so obviously true but isn’t. Columbus did face opposition. He did persevere. He did sail west. He did find land (not Asia as he had predicted and continued to believe but the New World). But these truths have nothing to do with the shape of the earth—Columbus and all his detractors knew that the earth was round. The truthiness in the myth lies, on the one hand, in the image of a dogmatic medieval Spanish Church that clung to a retrograde idea about the shape of the earth and refused to listen to reason and evidence. On the other hand, truthiness also inheres in the image of Columbus as a proto-modern, quasi-secular thinker guided only by reason and evidence. The truthiness is the reason 19th-century authors fabricated the myth and 21st-century educators continue to repeat it.
The seeds of the Columbus myth seem to grow from Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) (online here). Alexander Everett, Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, had invited Irving to Madrid in the hopes that Irving would translate a recently published collection of documents on Columbus. When Irving got there and had a chance to read the collection, he decided
that a history, faithfully digested from these various materials, was a desideratum in literature, and would be a more acceptable work to my country, than the translation [he] had contemplated.
So he set out to write a history of Columbus. Irving enjoyed unfettered access to libraries, which he mined for his biography. He culled from manuscripts and published books a wealth of information. Despite the material at his disposal, the sources were at times silent or missing or not all that interesting. So Irving embellished. He wrote what should have happened, what surely did happen even if the evidence had since disappeared. He did what historians had been doing since Herodotus: he made it up. He seamlessly wove fact and fiction together into a “clear and continued narrative.”
Irving detailed Columbus’s thoughts about the size of the earth. Columbus examined earlier maps that depicted the known world that stretched from Canary Islands in the west to its eastern limits in China. The Portuguese had more recently explored further west to the Azores. According to Columbus’s calculations, only a third of the earth’s circumference remained unexplored. Moreover, based on his reading of Arabic astronomers, Columbus thought the length of a degree at the equator was shorter than the commonly accepted length. The third of earth’s circumference was, Columbus concluded, much smaller than that accepted by contemporary cosmographers. As Irving pointed out in various places, Columbus was aberrant in his beliefs, which beliefs were, in fact, wrong:
It is singular how much the success of this great undertaking depended upon two happy errors, the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth…*
But a recitation of historical truths was boring, especially when Irving knew the confrontation between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca must have been dramatic. So Irving embellished a little when he described Columbus before the council. He enhanced the historical truths with truthiness—events that seemed so right, so natural, that must have happened even if there’s no record of them.
The Council at Salamanca was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, as well as church dignitaries and learned friars, and convened to examine Columbus’s “new theory.” Most of the council members were biased against Columbus, “an obscure foreigner, without fortune, or connexions, or any academic honors.” In what must have been the acme of truthiness for Irving, he described the council benighted by “monastic bigotry” and assailing Columbus with Biblical citations. They rejected mathematical demonstrations that conflicted with scriptures or Church Fathers. At issue was not, however, the shape of the earth, but the possibility of antipodes:
Thus the possibility of antipodes in the southern hemisphere … became a stumbling block with some of the sages of Salamanca.
Members of the council invoked Lactantius, who connected the existence of antipodes to the shape of the earth. Irving quoted what has become the standard passage:
“The idea of the roundness of the earth,” he adds, “was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes with their heels in the air....”
A quick reading of Irving might confirm that the issue here was the shape of the earth, but in the next sentence he returned to the antipodes:
But more grave objections were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounced the doctrine of antipodes incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean.
The council’s grave objections focused on the existence of other humans, not on the shape of the earth.
Irving described briefly a couple objections raised about the shape of the earth—passages from the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews—but these serve merely as a foil for the objections raised by “[o]thers, more versed in science, [who] admitted the globular form of the earth.” Their objections were grounded the knowledge that the earth was a sphere. They worried that it was impossible to sail across the torrid zone at the equator, that only the northern hemisphere was inhabitable, and that the circumference of the earth was so great as to require three years to sail across the Atlantic.
Whatever liberties Irving took in crafting his biography, he did not lose sight of historical truths. Instead, and perhaps more disturbingly, he enlisted those truths in the service of truthiness. In Irving’s version, Columbus had struggled against “errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry” of the Spanish Church that refused to listen to reason and evidence. His biography was less about Columbus and more about the timeless struggle between on the one hand rationality, science, individuality, and anti-aristocratic modernity and, on the other hand, a retrograde, oppressive, medieval Church. It was the story’s truthiness that appealed to other 19th-century authors.
Within a decade, William Whewell had published his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) (online here). In a section on antipodes, he admitted that most people throughout history had known the earth was round. Only a few people who preferred scriptural evidence over physical evidence denied the sphericity of the earth. Lactantius, of course, and now Cosmas Indicopleustes, who says nothing about antipodes but offers an easily mocked tabernacle-shaped world and flat earth. Whewell then returns to the antipodes before concluding the section by casually remarking: “Tostatus notes the opinion of the rotundity of the earth as an unsafe doctrine, only a few years before Columbus visited the other hemisphere.” Again, Columbus and the shape of the earth.
By the latter 19th-century, the supposed truth of the Columbus story had completely replaced the historical truths. In works like John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) (online here) we read nothing of the reasoned objections raised by the Council at Salamanca or of Columbus’s errors. Instead we learn that his proposal’s
irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the Council of Salamanca; its orthodoxy was confuted from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophecies, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the writings of the Fathers—St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St Ambrose.
In the end, Columbus prevailed and along with Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan finally settled the question of the shape of the earth.
By the time Andrew White wrote his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) (online here), Columbus’s struggles to overcome a medieval Church that believed in a flat earth had become historical fact. Historical truth had surrendered to truthiness. White transformed Irving’s biased but still recognizable historical account into little more than agitprop:
The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.
Despite decades of historical work and dozens of articles and textbooks and, more recently, blogposts, the Columbus myth is alive and well in the United States. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently invoked it. President Obama equated opponents of clean energy to people who opposed Columbus on the grounds that the earth was flat. The president received much applause when he said (at 0:55 in the video):
If some of these folks [opponents of clean energy] were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.
More recently still, Chris Impey, an astronomer at University of Arizona who claims to be interested in and knowledgable about history, fell prey to the Columbus myth in a lecture posted on YouTube, “Ancient Astronomy.” He identifies himself as “a student of history” and a member of a select group, “the educated extreme of the culture.” Yet moments earlier he lamented that
[t]here was a thing called the Dark Ages. There was a period of 700 or 800 years when all of the extraordinary insights of the Greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat. And truly thought the world was flat. There were demons that lurked at the edge of the map.
He underscores this claim in his video series “Teach Astronomy” (which is part of an online textbook). In the section on “The Dark Ages” he says:
In the fourth century with the fall of Rome and the sacking of the great library at Alexandria scientific darkness fell across Europe. Even the language of learning, Latin, splintered as warring tribes took over. The theology of the day was defined by Augustine, and the Christian church was mostly anti-science. The learning of the Romans and the Greeks was denigrated as pagan knowledge. Even the knowledge of the round Earth was lost for many centuries.
Impey’s comments reveal, I think, the power of the Columbus myth. It has become so central to the idea of modernity, that even a self-described student of history who is both smart and very educated—part of the “educated extreme”—is not motivated to do a simple internet search to fact check that part of his lecture and textbook. Whereas Irving had mixed truths and truthiness into a “clear and continued narrative,” subsequent authors have pruned the historical truths from the story, leaving just a myth that has become part of modern folklore.
*Irving’s biography also depicts Columbus as something of a zealot, motivated by religious and dogmatic convictions as much as anything. For more on Columbus’s religious motivations, see Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey.
On the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages there is a really cool entry that readers of The Catholic Astronomer should take a look at. The entry consists of an excerpt from the Tahāfut al-falāsifa, or The Incoherence of the Philosophers, of Abu Hāmid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tūsi al-Ghazālī. (The excerpt is fully downloadable in PDF format.) Al-Ghazālī, who lived in the eleventh century, is one of medieval Islam’s best-known religious intellectuals.
Al-Ghazālī says that disputing matters of science on the basis of religious texts or ideology is a waste of time. Moreover, he says the atheists love it when people of faith do such things, because, he says, “then the atheist’s path for refuting religion becomes easy”. He says that once something is scientifically well-established (for example, the mechanism by which eclipses occur), then
whoever inspects them and is convinced by their evidence, deriving for himself information about the extent, times of occurrence, and duration of these two kinds of eclipses—and who then is told that this is contrary to religion—will grow suspect of religion, not of science.
Al-Ghazālī notes that people who defend religion badly do more damage to religion than even those who attack religion effectively!
Click here for Al-Ghazālī – from The Incoherence of the Philosophers, on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages. It is worth a look!
In my post last week about the Alvan Clark refractor at the Cincinnati Observatory, I mentioned that the observatory was originally built in the 1840s in a part of Cincinnati called Mt. Adams (located just east of downtown Cincinnati on the Ohio River) but it moved three decades later to its current location. It is now located in a neighborhood of Cincinnati called Mt. Lookout. A drawing and photograph of the original observatory building on Mt. Adams are seen below.
The observatory was moved on account of pollution. There is a painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum that illustrates just how bad the pollution at Mt. Adams was, and how difficult it would have been to do astronomy there. The painting is by Edward Timothy Hurley, painted in oil on canvas in 1911. Its title is “The Midnight Mass” (it is featured on Google Arts & Culture). It portrays Immaculata Church, which is still there on Mt. Adams.
The Cincinnati Art Museum’s note on “The Midnight Mass” explains the painting’s appearance:
The city’s site on the river and its industrial pollution... created smoggy atmospheric conditions.... Painters like Hurley loved the enveloping haze of Cincinnati, which blanketed the city in quietude and elicited poetic sentiments. Observations of the city published in Harper’s Monthly seem to describe Hurley’s painting perfectly:
The white vapors of the Ohio invade the streets, arrest and mingle with the smoke, immerse all things in obscurity, and convert the creations of architects, great and small, into noble masses, free from all smallness or meanness of detail.
Here is a longer quotation from that Harper’s article, which was published in 1883:
Cincinnati is like London. In the heat of summer or in the cold of winter you look up through the laden atmosphere and see a cheerful sphere of burnished copper doing duty for the sun. The air is filled with the wholesome carbon that is said to confer upon chimney-sweeps a complete immunity from all contagion, and which enjoys the credit of making London one of the healthiest cities in the world. Cincinnati, like London, also has its occasional river fog, when the white vapors of the Ohio invade the streets, arrest and mingle with the smoke, immerse all things in obscurity, and convert the creations of architects, great and small, into noble masses, free from all smallness or meanness of detail.
This smoke of Cincinnati is as invaluable to the eye of the disinterested artist who concerns himself with the physical aspect of the city as it is dispensable with to the Cincinnatian. Like all communities in the great valley of the West, its fuel is identical in effect with the same economical, heat-giving, and smoke-begetting coal that gives to the English town its grimy, inky hue, and to our own Pittsburgh that complexion which baffles all description. It imparts its distinctive color and a variety of quality to the Cincinnati landscape, which, considered together with the situation and topography of the town, make it one of the most picturesque of American cities.
No doubt it was usually impossible to do any astronomy from Mt. Adams in the later nineteenth century. The atmospheric crud probably was even hard on the astronomical instruments (not to mention hard on human lungs and eyes).
But note the clarity of the sky in the modern photograph of Immaculata. People can tend to look for the worst in things. Many astronomers would scoff at the idea of observing from Mt. Adams today: It is right next to downtown Cincinnati; the light pollution is terrible! Once upon a time, they will tell you, you could see the stars from the city. But in fact, once upon a time you could often not see the stars from the city—indeed even the sun itself might be reduced to a “sphere of burnished copper”—and so the Cincinnati Observatory left Mt. Adams. Now today an astronomer can observe from there: the moon, planets, and even the brighter stars can all be seen. A century ago, even the moon would have been “immersed in obscurity” as seen from Mt. Adams.
Yes, it would be great to get rid of light pollution (and the idiotic waste of energy and money that light pollution represents) so that the skies over Mt. Adams would be truly dark and more of the heavens could be seen. It would be great to clean up the air in the Ohio River valley even more. And there is the high-profile issue of climate change (and the low-profile issue of trash and litter in Cincinnati neighborhoods and in the storm drains, streams, and rivers of the area—all heading downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico). But the “The Midnight Mass” and the skies of Mt. Adams today show us two important things: first, not every thing gets worse; second, we humans actually can clean up our mess when we get a mind to do so. Perhaps a century from now, the skies over Mt. Adams will be clearer, cleaner, and darker still.
Readers of The Catholic Astronomer should visit the Cincinnati (Ohio) Observatory—it is a fantastic place to go for anyone who likes astronomy, history, or science education. The observatory dates back to the 1840s. It was the creation of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, who raised money for the observatory by selling public shares (and who was from Kentucky, I might add). In 1843, former U.S. president John Quincy Adams traveled to Cincinnati to lay the cornerstone for the observatory on a hill in Cincinnati now known as Mt. Adams (named for the president). When he was president, Adams had wanted the U.S. to build an observatory but could not persuade the U.S. Congress to do so.
The Cincinnati observatory’s first telescope was a large refracting telescope made in Bavaria by Merz and Mahler. However, as Cincinnati grew, the air at Mt. Adams became more and more polluted, to the point where it interfered with the observatory’s work. In 1873 the Merz and Mahler telescope was moved away from the central city, to a new observatory building in an area known today in Cincinnati as Mt. Lookout.
In 1904 the observatory was outfitted with a new second building and a new telescope—an even larger refractor built in the U.S.A. by Alvan Clark. The original Merz and Mahler telescope was kept in operation, too, and is still functioning at the observatory—one of the oldest functioning telescopes in the world. But this post is about the Alvan Clark telescope, and in particular about its drive mechanism.
Students who take my astronomy laboratory class at Jefferson Community & Technical College (in Louisville, Kentucky, a hundred miles down the Ohio River from Cincinnati) must acquire and learn how to use a basic telescope; indeed, they do a lot of observing with their telescopes. And they quickly learn that stuff in the sky does not stand still. A student who successfully centers the moon in his or her telescope, for example, and then runs to tell family members to come take a look, finds upon returning to the scope that the moon is no longer in the eyepiece. This is because everything in the sky is in motion, rising in the east and setting in the west. My students have to manually adjust their telescopes to follow celestial objects in their motions, but more sophisticated telescopes have a drive mechanism that causes the telescope to follow the sky automatically.
The Alvan Clark has a remarkable weight-driven drive. A hand crank is used to raise a large weight, and then the slow fall of that weight powers a clock-like mechanism that, through a series of gears, drives the telescope. It works in the exact same way as a weight-driven “grandfather clock” or “cuckoo clock” works. The pictures below show all the parts.
The Alvan Clark telescope at the Cincinnati Observatory is one cool instrument. And yes, the crank-and-weight drive still works, and yes, the whole telescope can still be used for observations—and is still used!
(I hope to do a future post on the Merz and Mahler telescope. It is very cool, too.)
This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on January 18, 2017.
My post for next week will feature a cool old telescope,
so it seem fitting to re-run this post about a cool old telescope.
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 with the History Center, introduced me to the telescope this past December.
The telescope is still functional. I got to look through it and can testify that this telescope and eyepiece produce a good image, although the telescope’s focusing mechanism is stiff and seems to be somewhat gummed up. The mount for the telescope is lost—my view through the telescope was of the lights in the parking garage adjacent to the Cathedral, a view obtained with the telescope lying on a table. Nevertheless, it was very cool to think that Tomes and I might well have been the first people to have looked through Bouchet’s telescope in over a century, even if all we were looking at was just a parking garage light!
Bouchet himself must have been an interesting character. Among other things he was both an inventor (he constructed and patented a mechanical adding machine, which is on display in the History Center) and a science fiction writer (he wrote a story about a trip to the Moon).
Bouchet’s combination of interests—technology, astronomy, science fiction—is a combination found in many astronomers today, be they amateurs or professionals. Bouchet’s obituary noted, “Never was there a more singular, a more eccentric, a more contrarily gifted man who used his gifts and his winning personality so little to his own purposes…. He was at once both sage and child.”
I imagine Monsignor Bouchet would be most pleased to know that he is being remembered on account of his telescope—and that someone was looking through it well more than a century after his death. There is a reasonable chance that this telescope is the oldest operational telescope in Kentucky, almost certainly the oldest that is “Kentucky-born,” and I imagine Bouchet would be very pleased by that as well.
Information about Bouchet comes from the History Center and from An American Holy Land: A History of the Archdiocese of Louisville by Clyde F. Crews (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987).
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In January I ran a post here at The Catholic Astronomer about the newly-discovered letter that Galileo wrote and (according to the journal Nature) lied about—click here for that post. The Nature articles concerning Galileo’s letter were “news” or “opinion” articles, written by Nature’s editors and correspondents. They were not research papers written by the scholars who found the letter: Michele Camerota of the Università degli Studi di Cagliari, and Franco Giudice and Salvatore Ricciardo of Università degli Studi di Bergamo. Now a scholarly, peer-reviewed paper, written by those scholars regarding the letter, has been published, and so I thought I’d follow up with a little analysis.
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Here is another “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” discovery (click here for all the “Art & Architecture” posts): St. Joseph Church in Leitchfield, Kentucky (Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, USA). St. Joseph is just off the main square in Leitchfield, and it invites the passer-by to stop in and take a look. Hey, if you were touring through a small town in Italy you would want to make a stop in the town church, so of course you want to do the same thing when touring through a small town in Kentucky!
Above the altar in St. Joseph, which is a lovely church to stop in and see, is a painting of the death of St. Joseph. According to the book Freely You Have Received, Freely Give: 75 Years of the Diocese of Owensboro Kentucky, this painting came from the cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky—this being the cathedral when Bardstown was the seat of the first inland diocese in the US (the Diocese of Bardstown having been formed at the same time as the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; the seat of the diocese was eventually transferred to Louisville, Kentucky). Freely You Have Received says that the exact age of the painting is unknown, but it dates to at least 1850.
And, painted on the ceiling above the painting, is a very cool little constellation of stars, shown below. I think this constellation is particularly interesting in how the stars are painted with differing magnitudes and colors. This painting seems not to be intended to be realistic, but nevertheless it is a fair representation of stars as seen by the naked eye. It is interesting that the colors are reasonable approximations for cooler, redder stars like Antares or Betelgeuse, and hotter, whiter stars like Sirius. The mottled background is interesting, too—like the stars are being viewed on a day that is not perfectly clear. My guess is that the artist who painted the constellation had done some stargazing.
Is there any symbolism or other meaning—religious, artistic, or otherwise—involved in this constellation? Readers of The Catholic Astronomer, do let us know if you can see any such thing in these stars!
Believe it or not, there is a connection to be found between these stars in St. Joseph Church in Leitchfield, and the Vatican Observatory, and even the governor of Kentucky! St. Joseph is the old home parish of Fr. Richard Meredith, who in 2017 was the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Hopkinsville was the point of greatest eclipse during the 2017 solar eclipse. And Br. Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, spoke at Sts. Peter and Paul the day before the eclipse, at the invitation of Fr. Meredith. And when Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, heard that Br. Guy was in the area, he sought him out, travelling down gravel backcountry roads in his SUV with a State Trooper to escort him, to find the remote location where Br. Guy was observing the eclipse. So there’s the connection!
Indeed, perhaps looking at these stars is part of why Fr. Meredith developed an interest in science. And, perhaps, were these stars not painted on the ceiling of St. Joseph, then Fr. Meredith might not have been so science-minded, and might not have ever thought to invite Br. Guy to Hopkinsville. And then Br. Guy might have ended up viewing the eclipse from some lesser location than Kentucky (any location not in Kentucky qualifying as lesser). And then Gov. Bevin would have never met him, and the pictures below would not exist!
On March 7 the “Google Doodle” featured mathematician Olga Ladyzhenskaya. If you clicked on the “doodle” you probably saw something like the Wikipedia entry that showed up at the top corner of the screen:
Olga Aleksandrovna Ladyzhenskaya was a Russian mathematician. She was known for her work on partial differential equations and fluid dynamics. She provided the first rigorous proofs of the convergence of a finite difference method for the Navier–Stokes equations.
I wanted to find out a little more about this person, and in searching around I came upon a 10-year-old blog post from Mihai Caragiu, Professor of Mathematics at Ohio Northern University, who noted a “photograph of a 79 years old Ladyzhenskaya in her apartment in St. Petersburg featuring an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos [Mother of God]”. I could not really tell for sure that the woman in the picture was Ladyzhenskaya, and there was not additional information, but a little more searching quickly turned up an article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (vol. 51, num. 11, December 2004) on Ladyzhenskaya. Within that article (entitled “Olga Alexandrovna Ladyzhenskaya (1922–2004)” was the photo Caragiu had noted, with caption saying that this was indeed “Ladyzhenskaya, age 79, in her St. Petersburg apartment”. Next to Ladyzhenskaya’s desk as seen in the photo is obviously an icon of Mary holding Jesus. And, on the other end of her desk is another piece of religious artwork. It is too small to see clearly, but it seems to be Jesus or a saint: someone in a robe, with a halo or aura around the head.
Of course, some religious artwork does not necessarily mean Ladyzhenskaya was a person of faith. But, a little more digging led to the Cornell University Library and The Eugene B. Dynkin Collection of Mathematics Interviews. In a 1990 interview with the mathematician Anatoly M. Vershik, Dynkin and Vershik talked about Ladyzhenskaya. And, what appears in the interview? That her father tried to save the children of a priest whom the communist authorities were about to exile, and she was herself a charitable and “profoundly religious” person. So, it seems the religious artwork was there in Ladyzhenskaya’s apartment to be more than just art.
I frequently write on this blog about how my students, or visitors to my college’s observatory, or others have expressed how they perceive some divide between religion and science, and I write that this perception is a problem, especially for science, which needs allies, not enemies. But as far as I can tell, such a divide does not actually exist. Witness Olga Ladyzhenskaya:
- Honored by Google
- Profoundly religious, charitable woman who kept religious icons at her desk.
If you like this little post on Olga Ladyzhenskaya, and you like how it is a completely different perspective from anything else you would have found when you clicked that Google Doodle, then consider clicking right here and supporting the outfit that makes this possible—the Vatican Observatory Foundation. The VOF is the outfit that keeps the Vatican’s U.S. telescope (on Mount Graham in Arizona) running. That’s why this blog exists—to keep that telescope doing science. Support the blog—support the telescope—support science.