If you have been reading The Catholic Astronomer for a while, you might be familiar with these “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” posts (click here for all of them). This one is the first to feature ancient art!
Serpent Mound in south-central Ohio is a pretty cool place. It is a Native American monument that sits on a high ridge at the junction of two creeks, with steep drop-offs and even abrupt cliffs on either side. According to The Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), who operates the site—
Serpent Mound is an internationally known National Historic Landmark built by the ancient American Indian cultures of Ohio. It is an effigy mound (a mound in the shape of an animal) representing a snake with a curled tail. Nearby are three burial mounds—two created by the Adena culture (800 B.C.–A.D. 100), and one by the Fort Ancient culture (A.D. 1000–1650).
Thousands of years ago, Native Ohioans populated the landscape with mounds and massive earthworks. In the late 19th century, Harvard University archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam excavated Serpent Mound, but he found no artifacts in the Serpent that might allow archaeologists to assign it to a particular culture. Based largely on the nearby presence of Adena burial mounds, later archaeologists attributed the effigy to the Adena culture that flourished from 800 B.C. to A.D. 100. This theory on the site’s origin was accepted until a 1991 site excavation used radiocarbon dating to determine that the mound was approximately 900 years old. This would suggest that the builders of the Serpent belonged to the Fort Ancient culture (A.D. 1000–1500). In 2014, another team of archaeologists presented new radiocarbon dates for the Serpent suggesting that it was built by the Adena culture at around 300 B.C. More work is needed to clarify the age of Serpent Mound.
One of the claims about Serpent Mound is that its builders aligned it with the setting of the sun at the summer solstice, and with the rising of the sun at both summer and winter solstices, and at the equinoxes, too. The head certainly is oriented toward the general direction of the summer solstice setting sun, but this lengthy mound is built on rolling terrain, and there are no precise marker points built into any part of it, so the rising sun alignments are vague. As The Ohio History Connection says—
Due to the short sight lines and the inability to define precise alignments... it may not be possible to determine whether the builders of the Serpent really intended it to be aligned to either the sun or the moon.
The fact is, the spur of high ground on which the serpent sits is oriented toward the setting summer solstice sun. So, maybe the builders ended up with that alignment by accident. Or, maybe they chose that piece of ground purposefully: they found a piece of dramatically elevated land with an alignment toward the solstice sun, and they decided that it was a special place and chose to build the serpent there. This is something about which no one really knows anything for certain, other than that here is a very large, very cool piece of Native American art, and it does seem to have a solstice alignment.
Take a look at a couple of entries from the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages, both pertaining to the Institutions de physique written by Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet. Du Châtelet wrote the book for her son (who of course then had to read a physics book his Mom wrote—homeschooling Moms, take note!). It is an early physics textbook, so to speak, that covers Newtonian physics (she published it in 1740). It also contains material related to astronomy. And Du Châtelet made the second chapter of Institutions on the existence of God—not something you are likely to find in a physics textbook today.
A group of faculty and students at the University of Notre Dame have been working for four years to create a complete translation of Institutions. A conference was held at Notre Dame this year to celebrate completion of their work. The complete translation (in various formats—not published) is available through the website of Katherine Brading, who led this project (but is now at Duke University). Click here for their complete translation of the second chapter.
Why might a person see great intrinsic value in mathematical knowledge? Why might a person be a “math nerd”? Consider this lengthy quotation, from a piece written by Fr. Ron Rolheiser that was published in The Record (the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky) some months ago,* in which Fr. Rolheiser reflects upon the words of a woman who had gone through a profound spiritual experience:
What she remembers most and most wants to share with others is this: “I learned that God is very close. We have no idea how close God is to us. God is closer to us than we ever imagine!” Her experience has left her forever branded with a sense of God’s warmth, love, and welcome, but what’s left the deepest brand of all inside her is the sense of God’s closeness. I was struck by this because, like millions of others, I generally don’t feel that closeness, or at least don’t feel it very affectively or imaginatively. God can seem pretty far away, abstract and impersonal, a Deity with millions of things to worry about without having to worry about the minutiae of my small life. Moreover, as Christians, we believe that God is infinite and ineffable. This means that while we can know God, we can never imagine God. Given that truth, it makes it even harder for us to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present inside us, worrying with, sharing our heartaches, and knowing our most guarded feelings. Compounding this is the fact that whenever we do try to imagine God’s person our imaginations come up against the unimaginable. For example, try to imagine this: There are billions of persons on this earth and billions more have lived on this earth before us. At this very minute, thousands of people are being born, thousands are dying, thousands are sinning, thousands are doing virtuous acts, thousands are making love, thousands are experiencing violence, thousands are feeling their hearts swelling with joy, all of this part of trillions upon trillions of phenomena. How can one heart, one mind, one person be consciously on top of all of this and so fully aware and empathetic that no hair falls from our heads or sparrow from the sky without this person taking notice? It’s impossible to imagine, pure and simple, and that’s part of the very definition of God. How can God be as close to us as we are to ourselves?
The woman had approached Rolheiser spontaneously, wanting to communicate God’s closeness. Rolheiser, in contrast, finds it hard “to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present”.
Infinity is a mathematical concept of sorts. It cannot be directly expressed, but it can be studied by a certain process of imagining a progression of simple calculations. For example, consider simple division, say 100 divided by 2: 100/2 = 50. Now let us divide 100 by a larger number, such as 5: 100/5 = 20. Dividing by a larger number (5 rather than 2) yields a smaller result (20 rather than 50). Now let us extend this to dividing 100 by progressively larger and larger numbers: 100/10 = 10; 100/50 = 2; 100/100 = 1; 100/500 = 0.5; 100/1000 = 0.1; 100/10,000 = 0.01. Dividing by progressively larger and larger numbers yields progressively smaller and smaller results. So while we cannot actually divide 100 by infinity, we can imagine that as we increase the dividing number more and more, the result will be smaller and smaller still; thus we can say that as the dividing number heads up toward infinity, the number resulting from the division heads down toward zero. And thus in some sense, 100 divided by infinity is zero.
Now let us go the other direction, and divide 100 into some other number. Let’s divide 100 into 20: 20/100 = 0.2. Now let’s divide 100 into something larger, like 400: 400/100 = 4. Let’s keep dividing 100 into larger and larger numbers: 1000/100 = 10; 40,000/100 = 400; 10,000,000/100 = 100,000. Dividing 100 into progressively larger and larger numbers yields progressively larger and larger results. Thus while we cannot actually divide 100 into infinity, we can imagine that as we divide 100 into increasingly larger numbers, the result will be larger and larger, so that we can say that as the number being divided heads up toward infinity, the number resulting from the division also heads up toward infinity. And thus in some sense, infinity divided by 100 is infinity. And this does not change if, instead of dividing our various numbers by 100, we instead divide by 200, or by 10,000, or by a billion, or by an umpteen gazillion. Our “math nerd” fact for the day: Infinity divided by any number is infinity.
(This is not something new in mathematics. Johann Georg Locher and his mentor, Fr. Christoph Scheiner, S.J.—both math nerds to some extent—wrote about infinity at some length in their 1614 book Mathematical Disquisitions. It was not new stuff then, either.)
So, if there is an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things, it makes no difference whether there are billions of persons on this earth, with thousands of people being born, dying, sinning, etc. every minute. It makes no difference that there are trillions upon trillions of phenomena (indeed, far more than that). We human beings each have a finite amount of time and attention to divide among the things we have to do or keep track of, so that the more things we have the less we can focus on each. However, an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things has an infinity to divide, and our brief study of mathematics has shown us that infinity divided by any number, is infinity. Therefore that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things can focus an infinity of attention on a hair that falls from your head, or a sparrow that falls from the sky. Our knowledge of mathematics helps us to understand that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things really will be intimately and personally present. If there is an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things, that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things knows each of us, has more time for us, and is closer to us, than we know and have time for and are close to ourselves—infinitely more. For the person who believes that an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things exists, a “nerdy” knowledge of mathematics can help him or her to understand how that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things can know and care about a hair or sparrow.
It is socially acceptable, even among educated people, to be ignorant of mathematics, and even to dismiss it as being beyond explanation and beyond interest—as being the province of the nerds who can wrap their minds around such things. However, knowledge of math is valuable and worthwhile in so many ways, including, as we see here, in ways related to faith. This is important even to those who might not believe that an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things exists—at least if they care about math and science and related “STEM” areas of knowledge, and about knowledge and education in general. In the U.S., at least, students go into debt for education, and there is increasing pressure within the world of education to engage students and to do everything possible to ensure that students are successful and that they do not accumulate debt yet no degrees. So what in fact will engage people? Some will be engaged by math because they love math; others because they believe knowledge of math will help in getting a good job. But to engage a diverse audience of people means to consider what a diverse audience finds engaging and wants to really know. So often, the subject of knowledge that really engages a broad swath of people—that makes people want to spontaneously come forward to share what they know with others—is faith. As discussed in my last post, the future is full of people of faith; full of people who have a strong reason to see a great intrinsic value in mathematical knowledge, to be attracted to nerdy mathematical thought because through it they can understand how God can be close.
Planet Earth is a world of the faith-full. And, it seems Earth is likely to become yet more faith-full during the next few decades. The scientific community will have to embrace that faith-full world if it wants a scientifically literate world.
A few years ago the Pew Research Center published an article entitled “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050” that projected the growth of various religious groups. Their projections, among religions, were for Christians and Hindus to maintain their share of the world’s population, for Muslims to grow substantially, and for Buddhists and Folk Religions to shrink. However, Pew projected the overall share of the world’s population that identifies with a religion to grow—from 83.6% of the world’s population in 2010, to 86.8% in 2050—as the religiously unaffiliated, which includes atheists and agnostics, drops from 16.4% of the population today to 13.2% in 2050. Pew notes that while there is a belief among some that increasing economic development will result in increasing religious disaffiliation, that is the experience only within certain countries. Pew writes—
There is little evidence of economic development leading to religious disaffiliation in Muslim-majority countries. In Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation remains nearly universal despite rapid social and economic change. And in China, religious affiliation—though very difficult to measure—may be rising along with economic development.
Pew notes that China is currently home to a large population of religiously unaffiliated, but if Christianity expands at the rate some experts predict, the world’s percentage of Christians may be higher than Pew projects—and the percentage of religiously unaffiliated, lower.
So if the scientific community wants a scientifically literate world, we will have to reach a faith-full world. Unfortunately, the scientific community can seem a little lost on this point. Consider, for example, the title of the 2016 book by Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago: Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. I thought of this again while paging though the Spring 2018 issue of the SPS Observer, the magazine of the Society of Physics Students, published by the American Institute of Physics. Within that issue was a short opinion piece by Don Lincoln, Senior Scientist at Fermilab, entitled, “To the Ramparts: Defending Science!”, itself part of a larger section entitled “Exploring Science Communication and Policy”. Lincoln writes—
There is a cultural war going on for the soul of America, and you are a soldier. That might seem to be an overly martial metaphor, but bear with me. On the one side, there are the voices of reason and science, guided by logic and with a deep respect for the interplay between mathematics, modeling, and empiricism. On the other side are those who reject the tools that have advanced our understanding of the universe. They are the antivaxxers and flat-earthers, the homeopaths and climate-change deniers.... There’s astrology, creation science, and zero-point energy.... The forces of pseudoscience have always been among us. But the internet has given them a larger voice than before and allowed them to grow their communities. With increased voice comes increased influence.
Lincoln is telling today’s young scientists to think of too many people as being enemies. He puts too many people on the other side of the ramparts. Flat-earth-ism, astrology, and creationism (to stick with astronomy-related things Lincoln mentions) are not all of a piece.*
Flat-earth stuff is simply naked ignorance, and it always has been. No one ever in human history, who bothered to take the least trouble to look, ever thought that the Earth is flat. Aristotle knew the Earth is round, and he was not the first to figure that out. The roundness of Earth is obvious to anyone who pays any attention.
By contrast, plenty of distinguished thinkers over a vast span of centuries believed in astrology. Johannes Kepler, one of my favorite people to talk about on this blog, did, and he is one of history’s A-list scientists. Astrology has not withstood the test of time. It fails as a science. But, unlike flat-earth-ism, it was once sort of defended by reasonable people.
Creationism is different still. One can reasonably argue that the universe was created by God relatively recently, and that God simply chose to create a mature universe that appears to science to have vast age, just as God chose to create Adam as a mature man who, were some scientist around to examine him, would have appeared much older than he was—and science cannot challenge this any more that it can challenge the claim that God created the universe this morning with the appearance of vast age. Kepler believed that the universe was 6,000 years old. Kepler was a voice of reason and science, guided by logic and with a deep respect for the interplay between mathematics, modeling, and empiricism, but his faith meant a lot to him. Even were he made aware of modern scientific discoveries, he might have still affirmed as a matter of faith the idea of a recently created universe.
Faith means a lot to many, many people, and among people of faith there is a deep intellectual tradition of reason and logic and science. And, according to Pew’s projections, faith-full people are only going to become a bigger part of the population of this planet. Science absolutely, positively does not want to be putting them, or any noticeable fraction of them, on the other side of the ramparts with the Flat-Earth know-nothings. Science cannot afford to be so exclusionary and opposed to diversity of thought as to accept declarations that science and religion are incompatible; it cannot afford to be in battle with any noticeable fraction of a group that makes up 80+% of the world’s population and growing. On the contrary, the scientific community must work to ensure that there is no opposition between faith and science, that no one gets the message that science is more the business of people from Norway than people from Nigeria (Christianity, for example, often being cited as declining in Scandinavia and growing in Africa). Call it Celebrating Diversity. Call it wanting the largest possible pool of scientific talent. Call it recognizing demographic reality. Regardless of what we call it, we need to make sure that the only people on the other side of the ramparts are those who really do have no commerce with reason and logic.
And guess what? The Vatican Observatory is doing exactly the sort of thing that the scientific community ought to be doing! So, support science! Support inclusivity! Support more people thinking that they can be a part of the scientific enterprise! Support the V.O., and particularly the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope!—click here. Someone has to be doing science with an eye to an increasingly faith-full world.
*Lincoln does use the term “creation science”, so he may be referring to efforts to argue that the Earth does not even appear to be old as measured by science, efforts which tend more toward the flat-earth mentality, but without his having explicitly drawn this distinction I suspect most readers will think of creationism in general when they read his piece.
Last week [in 2016], in a post about discussing theories like the Big Bang theory with those who hold traditional views of the age of the universe (such as the folks who built the Kentucky Ark), I mentioned how Arthur Eddington and Edwin Hubble expressed opposition to the idea of a finite age to the universe, and how the name “Big Bang” was a derisive joke-name given to it by Fred Hoyle.
Guess who else disliked the Big Bang Theory? Soviet scientists. Yes, in 1949 Soviet astronomers pledged to fight against the theory of the “widening of the Universe” and declared that, in order to counterbalance this pro-religious “bourgeois” idea
...Soviet science must intensify its work on regions beyond our galaxy, to give a materialistic explanation of the red displacement in the spectra of galaxies.*
And, during the same time period, members of the Soviet establishment made statements such as
Today’s bourgeois science supplies the church and fideism with new arguments… [which] assert that the world is finite, that it is limited in time and space.... The theory [“broadly known in capitalist countries as the expanding Universe theory”] was offered in the late 1920s by the Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre, and it is underlain by the phenomenon called in astronomy the “red shift.” The reactionary scientists Lemaitre... and others made use of the “red shift” in order to strengthen religious views on the structure of the Universe.... Falsifiers of science want to revive the fairy tale of the origin of the world from nothing.**
And then there was
The general scientific crisis in America and Western Europe is reflected in astronomy also. As a result, cosmogony, the branch of astronomy concerned with questions of the development of celestial bodies, has been turned into a repository for all kinds of idealistic nonsense and absurd fabrications which in the last analysis aim at restoring the legend of the world’s creation.+
Yes, the Big Bang Theory has had its detractors. These folks saw it as a creationist theory (because the universe has a beginning in the Big Bang Theory, albeit 13.7 billion years ago) developed by a Catholic priest (Lemaitre). The prevailing view had been that the universe had no beginning and was broadly unchanging.
One of the great ironies of the Big Bang theory is that opposition to it has come from such widely divergent groups as “godless Soviet” scientists and the folks who brought us the Kentucky Ark.++
*From “Russian Astronomers Hold Theory of Cosmos Origin Surpasses West” by Harrison E. Salisbury, The New York Times (July 14, 1949), page 1.
**From Alexander A. Friedmann: The Man Who Made the Universe Expand, by E. A. Tropp, V. Y. Frenkel, and A. D. Chernin, translated by A. Dron and M. Burov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 223-224.
+From “Greetings to Winners of Stalin Prizes,” Pravda (March 5, 1951), pg. 4. The quote is from V. Ambartsumyan, who was a Stalin Prize winner and President of the Armenian Academy of Sciences.
++I learned about Soviet opposition to the Big Bang theory from the talk “The Relations between Dutch Radio Astronomers and Their Soviet Colleagues during the Heyday of the Cold War,” by Astrid Elbers of Leiden Observatory, at the Tenth Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop, July 6-10, 2011, at the University of Notre Dame. Elbers’s work was published in 2012 under the title “De relaties tussen Nederlandse astronomen en hun Sovjetcollega’s tijdens de Koude Oorlog.” The published version contains other interesting quotations related to this topic.
In my last post we discussed why astronomers say “The universe is expanding.” But there is something important that we did not discuss in the last post. And that is this:
We do not actually see the universe expanding.
What do I mean by this? As stated in the previous post, when astronomers say the universe is expanding, they do not mean that everything is expanding. For example, the Earth, your hand, and the distance between Venus and the sun are all not expanding. What is expanding is the distance between galaxies. Galaxies are moving away from each other.
Or so we think.
The problem is, galaxies move so slowly, compared to their size. A galaxy can measure 100,000 light years across—in other words, a galaxy can be so large that a beam of light would require roughly 100,000 years to travel from one side of it to the other. But this also means that a galaxy is so large that, even if it were travelling at the speed of light, it would require 100,000 years just to vacate the space it currently occupies. See the picture below? That is a “magical real-time animation” of a galaxy moving to the right at the speed of light. Truly! Just watch the screen for a few hundred thousand years, and you will see the galaxy move right out of the picture. And you only have to watch for a few thousand years before you might maybe notice some change. Galaxies don’t actually move at the speed of light, so the bottom line is this: we do not actually see galaxies move.
Then what about all the stuff discussed in the last post? What about Edwin Hubble’s discovery in the late 1920’s that those galaxies that are more distant are moving away from us faster? What about the Hubble Plot?
Hubble made his discovery because Henrietta Leavitt figured out how to measure vast distances in space using certain kinds of stars as standards of measurement. A decade or so prior to Hubble, Leavitt discovered that the brightnesses of certain stars (stars with a certain peculiar pattern of fluctuations in light output) could be predicted, and then the predicted brightness could be compared to the observed brightness to estimate distance (the dimmer the star appeared vs. what was predicted, the farther away the star must be). Leavitt achieved what was arguably one of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of astronomy—and Hubble used Leavitt’s stars to measure the distance to galaxies, and without Leavitt’s stars he would have not made his discovery.
So if Hubble used Leavitt’s stars to measure the distance to galaxies, how did he measure movement of the galaxies? Obviously he could not see them moving. He measured their movement using the “Red Shift”—a reddening of the light emitted by each galaxy, caused by the Doppler Effect. The Doppler Effect is the same effect used in Doppler radar used by police to clock the speeds of cars on a highway. More Red Shift means more movement away.
So here is the key point: Hubble did not actually measure galaxy distances and galaxy movements. He measured brightnesses (of Leavitt stars in the galaxies) and Red Shifts (of galaxy light). From these, he used Leavitt’s method and the Doppler Effect to calculate distance and movement. Astronomers since Hubble have accepted all this.
But what if Leavitt’s method has problems? Or, what if the Red Shifts are caused by something other than galactic movement? Hubble himself would eventually come to believe that the Red Shifts are not caused by movement, and that the universe is not expanding.
You see, around the same time that Hubble was doing his work, Fr. Georges Lemaître, a physicist and a priest, used Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to calculate that the universe must be expanding—and that at one time the universe had been much smaller than it now is, and that in fact Einstein’s theory implied that the universe and even time itself all began on a “day without yesterday.” This was the Big Bang theory, and within the scientific community there were those who considered this priest’s theory to be nothing more than an effort to use science to bolster religious ideas—a new spin on the story of Creation from the first chapter of Genesis. (The usual scientific view at that time was that the universe is eternal and unchanging, and thus with no beginning.) Certain figures in the scientific establishment of the Soviet Union in particular dismissed Lemaître’s theory of a universe with a beginning as being just religion in disguise (more on that in the next post).
Edwin Hubble also did not care for the idea of a beginning to the universe. Whereas in the 1920’s Hubble had announced that he had found that the more distant galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way faster, in 1942 he wrote an article entitled “The Problem of the Expanding Universe”* in which he argued that the Doppler effect measurements of velocity that he had given earlier were probably erroneous, and that the changes in light from distant galaxies that he had earlier interpreted as Doppler Effect were instead due to some unknown phenomenon. Hubble wrote:
Red shifts are due either to recession of the nebulae [i.e. galaxies] or to some hitherto unrecognized principle operating in internebular space. The latter interpretation leads to the simple conception of a sensibly infinite homogeneous universe of which the observable region is an insignificant fraction. The alternative interpretation of red shifts as velocity shifts leads to a particular type of an expanding universe which is disconcertingly young, small and dense.
Hubble went on to argue that the evidence did not favor the interpretation of red shifts as being due to the velocities of galaxies, and concluded—
...on the basis of the evidence now available, a choice seems to be presented, as once before in the days of Copernicus, between a small, finite universe, and a sensibly infinite universe plus a new principle of nature. And, as before, the choice may be determined by the attribute of simplicity.
Astronomers today do not agree with Hubble on this. For many reasons, they overwhelmingly accept the idea that the Red Shifts do indicate motion, and that the universe is indeed expanding, and that Fr. Lemaître’s Big Bang theory is valid. But it is not impossible that Hubble could be right. At some point in the future, we could find out that something else causes the Red Shift. That would not be good news for the Big Bang theory, and it would really stir things in science generally. I would not bet on that happening, but if you read my recent post on Kepler and giant stars, you know that sometimes we scientists can be smart and can do things right and get the measurements right, but still come to the wrong conclusions because we do not understand what we are measuring. But right now, to the best of our knowledge, the galaxies are moving away from us and, “The universe is expanding.”
*Science, Volume 95 (February 27, 1942), 212-215; quotes from pages 214 and 215.
“The universe is expanding.”——Since you are reading a science blog such as The Catholic Astronomer, you probably are familiar with that statement. But do you know why astronomers say that the universe is expanding? What is the basis for that statement?
To address that question, let’s consider this: what would an expanding universe look like?
This is going to take some imagination. Let us imagine a universe. The diagram below will be our universe. It contains galaxies (the little colored ovals), but its size and shape is undefined. The galaxies extend out beyond what is seen below, but how much beyond we do not know. Furthermore, the galaxies may extend out farther to the right than to the left, or farther down than up. All we really know is that here is our universe, and it contains galaxies.
Now, let us expand this universe. We will expand it uniformly—that is, equally in all directions. We will color the expanded universe grey. Note that all the galaxies are the same in both the original and the expanded versions of our imaginary universe. If you wish, break out a ruler and measure; you will see that our expanded universe is indeed larger in all directions.
Now, let us focus on one particular galaxy. And, let us suppose that any observer living in that galaxy can only see so far out into the universe. Since our observer can only see so far, and since the galaxies extend out indefinitely, our observer will see himself or herself as being at the center of all that can be seen. Like this—
Now let’s do this same thing for the same galaxy, but with the universe expanded—
Finally, let’s overlay these two on top of each other, so that we see both from the point of view of the observer in our focus galaxy—
Note how, in the expansion of the universe, our focus galaxy appears to be at the center of the expansion. That makes sense, if you think about it: when we enlarged the universe, we made all the distances between galaxies bigger. So, the distance from our focus galaxy to each and every other galaxy in our imaginary universe is larger. So, each and every other galaxy is moved away from our focus galaxy. Note also that the farther galaxies are moved more than the nearer ones. A “zoomed in” picture shows this more clearly—
If we enlarge the entire overlay picture (you can click on any one of these images to enlarge it) and use a ruler to crudely measure both the distance from our central focus galaxy to every other galaxy, and the amount each galaxy moves away from our central focus galaxy, we find that this trend of farther galaxies moving more than nearer ones holds for all the galaxies, and that the pattern of increase is more or less linear—
Try this with a ruler for yourself—you will find you get the same results.
Now, let’s try this out on another galaxy. This time let’s chose the green galaxy that is just to the left of our previous focus galaxy—
Here is the overlay for this second galaxy—
As you can see, any observer who might be in the second galaxy would see exactly the same pattern as the observer in the first galaxy sees. Both observers see their galaxies as being at the center of an expanding universe, and both see that farther galaxies are moving away from them more, and that the trend is linear.
And this is exactly what we see in our universe. The first person to see it was Edwin Hubble in the late 1920’s. He measured the distances to different galaxies and the movement of those galaxies, and then made a graph of galaxy distance vs. galaxy movement. His graph showed a linear pattern of farther galaxies having more movement away from us. Indeed, graphs like this are now called “Hubble Plots”. Below is Hubble’s original graph, along with a more modern Hubble Plot.
Thus, our universe is behaving just like the expanding universe that we imagined above. This is why astronomers say “The universe is expanding.” The view from here, on our planet in our galaxy, is that we are at the center of this expansion. However, as we saw earlier, inhabitants of any other galaxy in the universe will see themselves at the center, too. (Who is really at the center, and whether a center even exists, is a matter for another day.)
It is important to keep in mind that this expansion only refers to the distances between galaxies. The distance between Venus and the sun, for example, is not getting bigger. The Earth is not getting bigger. Some moon orbiting some planet in some other star system is not getting bigger. Your hand is not getting bigger. When astronomers say “The universe is expanding”, they only mean the distances between galaxies is getting bigger.
However, there have been some astronomers who have not believed that the Hubble Plots are evidence for an expanding universe. One such astronomer was, interestingly enough, Edwin Hubble.
And that is the subject of my post for next week.
What do the Milky Way and an ancient pilgrimage road in Spain have in common? A name: the Camino de Santiago. Here is a brief discussion from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook:
In Old England it was the Way of Saint James, the equivalent of the Spanish El Camino de Santiago; the name originating, it is said, from a popular legend that Theodomir, Bishop of Idria, was guided by a miraculous star to find the burial place of St. James in 835 AD. From the Field of the Star or “Campus Stella” where the discovery was made evidently comes the title St. James of Compostella. In still another tradition, popular in the Middle Ages, the Milky Way represented the Biblical Jacob’s Ladder upon which the angles descend to Earth.
(Note that James, Iago, and Jacob are essentially the same name.)
The identification of the Milky Way with St. James indeed goes way back. It can be found in a 1660 English-French-Italian-Spanish dictionary entitled Lexicon Tetraglotton:
Johannes Kepler refers to it in his 1618 Epitome of Copernican Astronomy:
The way called by the Greeks the Milky Way and by us the Road of St. Jacob is spread around in the middle of the orb of the fixed stars (as the orb appears to us), dividing it into two apparent hemispheres...
The Milky Way—the Via Lactea—the Milk-white Road—does have the appearance of a path through the sky. However, sometimes you will find the claim that the reason the Milky Way is called the Camino de Santiago is because pilgrims walking the Camino at night can see the Milky Way directly overhead, so that they are walking from East to West in the same direction as the Milky Way. But the fact is that the Milky Way rotates overhead during the night, revolving around the North Star, Polaris, along with the rest of the heavens. So, while it can at times point from East to West, it can also point from North to South, or encircle the horizon. When it passes directly overhead, it runs neither directly East-West nor directly North-South.
So the Milky Way is a Camino without an endpoint. The pilgrim who tries to use just the Milky Way a guide will go absolutely nowhere.
We approach the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. On the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science site you will find this cool video (click here) of Pope Paul VI at the V.O. at the time of the landing, trying his hand at the eyepiece of a V.O. telescope and giving a public statement on the significance of the landing.
I do many public programs at my college's observatory, and I think it is pretty clear that, at least at the moment shown in the video, Pope Paul was not getting a satisfactory view of the moon through that eyepiece. Notice how he squints and tries to keep one eye closed. Lots of people need some help in seeing through a telescope. When an inexperienced observer is going to use a telescope, it is good to select an eyepiece that is easy to look through. No doubt that telescope he was looking through was used for research, not public viewing, and the eyepiece being used was probably not great for a neophyte. Since Pope Paul VI is not beaming as he comes down from the telescope, I think his view was never satisfactory. I have seen that expression many times, but usually I can say "hey, let me help you get a better look". Not this time.
As noted in the last post, in a year from now we will be celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am hoping that those celebrations will include recognition of a unique accomplishment that is part of the Apollo 11 story but that is widely unknown: the work of Larry Baysinger, a man from my home town of Louisville, Kentucky, who independently detected signals from the Apollo 11 astronauts as they walked on the lunar surface. Last week’s post introduced Baysinger and Glenn Rutherford, the reporter (and future editor of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s newspaper) who recorded the project for posterity—both of whom I was fortunate enough to meet, four decades later.
And, four decades later, Baysinger still had the reel-to-reel tape recordings that he had made. He transferred the salvageable sections of the tape to digital format. You can listen to his recording and compare it to NASA’s own recording here:
Some years later, the BBC Radio 3 included an interview with Baysinger and Rutherford in a show called “Space Ham”. By that point Baysinger had managed to salvage more of the tape, including a section with President Richard Nixon speaking to the astronauts. You can click below to hear their interview, in which they give a nice discussion of their experience:
One interesting thing you will hear Baysinger and Rutherford discuss in the interview is how they were hoping to hear something that the general public would not hear. And they did not. When I talked to Baysinger back in 2009, I asked him about this, and he said that absolutely everything was transmitted to the public on TV, and that, in fact, “that was kind of disappointing”. Part of the idea of this project was to hear the unedited “real story”, and it turned out there was nothing edited out. Indeed, Rutherford’s story in the Courier-Journal makes no mention of hearing anything unusual. Baysinger did not attempt to eavesdrop on any other Apollo missions. After Apollo 11 he moved on to other projects.
Various Google/EBSCO/JSTOR searches have convinced me that there certainly were not a lot of amateur radio astronomers eavesdropping on Apollo transmissions. An inquiry I made via the HASTRO-L history of astronomy e-mail listserver did turn up the web page of Sven Grahn. Grahn and Dick Flagg apparently received some signals from the Apollo 17 command module in orbit around the moon, although the voice signals they received were limited to two small sentence fragments and they were using a large dish to receive the signals. A German radio observatory also recorded signals from the Moon. I made inquiries with a number of people in the radio community, none of whom knew of anything comparable to Baysinger’s work. These include Zack Lau, Senior Lab Engineer for the ARRL (the national association for amateur radio) and their QST magazine, who responded to an e-mail I sent to QST to say that they have no record of anyone picking up signals from Apollo 11; Rachel Baughn, editor of Monitoring Times magazine, who responded to an e-mail I sent that she had no information on this sort of thing; and Jim Sky of Radio-Sky Journal who responded to an e-mail Henry Sipes sent to him—again, no additional information. Phil Plait featured Baysinger’s work on his Bad Astronomy blog. His readers posted many comments, but no definite information. In general, people seem to be aware that amateur radio enthusiasts and radio astronomers listened in on Apollo missions. But what was heard, whether the signals were received from the Moon or just from the Apollo spacecraft when they were in Earth orbit, and so forth is an open question. What truly makes Baysinger’s work unique is that it was recorded in print at the time, and that he not only received but recorded extensive audio, much of which has survived to this day. If someone else did succeed in eavesdropping on NASA, but no record was ever made, and if that someone is no longer around, we will not know about it.
Besides the obvious “local interest” aspect to this story, there is a great educational aspect as well. Most people are aware that there is a significant (or significantly vocal) “Apollo denier” movement that says that we never went to the moon. The Apollo deniers have received attention through shows on Fox and Mythbusters that address the Apollo deniers’ arguments. I have found that a noticeable minority of my students, or maybe more than just a noticeable minority, are at least open to the idea that we never went to the moon—an issue I have discussed on this blog more than once. In a sense this is not surprising. Today’s traditional-age college students were born decades after Apollo 11. They have no memory of the moon landings—Apollo is just something in a book. And, it is not obvious that we will be returning to the moon any time soon; humankind today has little in the way of manned space capability beyond low Earth orbit. Thus the voyage to the moon probably seems to today’s students like a mythical voyage such as might have been made by Jason and the Argonauts, to a land which we visited once but to which we cannot go now. And, since all the evidence that we went to the moon comes from one source (NASA), it is relatively easy for conspiracy theorists to make their claims. Had thousands of amateur astronomers been able to see the men on the moon for themselves, there would be no Apollo deniers.
Baysinger’s lunar eavesdropping is an independent verification that men were on the moon, by a local person who is not part of the scientific establishment. Had there been more Larry Baysingers eavesdropping on Apollo, or had there been more Glenn Rutherfords to record the work of the Baysingers who did eavesdrop, there would be no Apollo deniers (this is an illustration of the importance of “reproducibility” in science).
Next summer there will be lots of talk about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and I hope that some of that talk includes the remarkable story of Larry Baysinger and Glenn Rutherford. It deserves to be told when the other Apollo 11 stories are told.
For a more detailed discussion of Baysinger’s work, see Lunar Eavesdropping in Louisville, Kentucky, on the web page of my college’s observatory. These posts were based on that discussion, which includes some additional details, especially on technical matters.
In a year from now we will be celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.* With luck, those celebrations will include recognition of a unique accomplishment that is part of the Apollo 11 story but that is widely unknown: the work of Larry Baysinger—a man from my home town of Louisville, Kentucky—who independently detected signals from the Apollo 11 astronauts as they walked on the lunar surface. Baysinger's accomplishments were recorded and promptly published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, by another Louisvillian by the name of Glenn Rutherford, who later went on to be editor of the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville, The Record.
Rutherford was a 23-year-old reporter for the Courier-Journal, and his article about Baysinger was published under the headline “Lunar Eavesdropping: Louisvillians hear moon walk talk on homemade equipment”. Baysinger was a technician for Louisville’s WHAS 840 AM radio, and only a few years older than Rutherford. The story garnered some attention for Baysinger at the time. He was interviewed by the Collins Radio Company, who made the communications equipment that was used for the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs. They were very impressed that anyone could detect the Apollo signals with home-built equipment. However, in time the story faded from view. In 2009, when I first learned of the story, I saw just how much it had faded by doing searches for information using keywords such as “Baysinger” and “Apollo” in Google, as well as in EBSCO and JSTOR databases. These searches yielded no references to Baysinger’s work. Searching “Lunar Eavesdropping” yielded no returns of any sort at all. (Today such searches return more results, thanks in part to a 2010 article about Baysinger that I wrote for the National Association for Amateur Radio.)
I learned about the story thanks to a discussion between Rutherford and me about some of the research Henry Sipes and I had going on at Otter Creek-South Harrison observatory. Rutherford had written about this research in a July 2009 article in The Record. Our discussion drifted into the issue of Kentuckians doing scientific research. That reminded Rutherford of the story of Baysinger’s work, and he told me the story. I later had the pleasure of speaking to Baysinger directly. It was remarkable that these two gentlemen, forty years later, should both still be here in Louisville, just a phone call away!
Baysinger told me that his Apollo lunar eavesdropping project arose because in the late 1960’s he was an amateur radio astronomer with an interest in NASA, in astronomy, in UFOs, and in other such things that were hot topics at a time when America was on the verge of landing its first men on the moon. He experimented with satellite tracking and capturing pictures of Earth transmitted from weather satellites. He had some success in these matters—for example, he was able to print out crude images from weather satellites using an impact printer that printed using carbon paper. These interests and efforts led to the idea that he might independently verify the information that NASA had been providing about the Apollo program. Could he get unedited, unfiltered information about the Apollo 11 landing by eavesdropping on the radio signals transmitted from the lunar surface? And could he find out things that NASA did not want the public to know about? But most of all, successfully detecting a transmission from the lunar surface would be a great technical accomplishment.
According to Baysinger, various local experts had said that it could not be done. However, information about the communication frequencies used by the Apollo missions was widely available. The March and June 1969 issues of CG: The Radio Amateur’s Journal, for example, contained this sort of information. If a person could build a good radio, he or she should be able to listen to Apollo. And not only did Baysinger listen to Apollo, but he recorded it, and saved those recordings for decades. And you can listen to them! But that will be the subject of the next post! (click here for it)
* I note that while the Apollo 11 landing was a great achievement, worth celebrating, the fact that since the Apollo program we have not returned to the moon, or even left Earth orbit, is hugely disappointing. When I was a kid I thought average people might be able to travel the solar system in the early 21st century!
For most of its 125+ years of existence, The telescopes of the Vatican Observatory (V.O.) were located exclusively on Vatican territory, either in Vatican City itself or, starting in the 1930’s, at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. However, in the early 1990’s the V.O. built a telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, where the skies are much darker and clearer than they are around Rome. This is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT. The name “Advanced Technology” refers to the VATT being one of the first telescopes to be built using a radically compact design and a new technique of telescope-building—things which since then have become much more common in big telescopes. The VATT is of course not in Vatican territory, and while it is staffed by V.O. astronomers, most of its operating funds come from private sources—such as you, O Reader of The Catholic Astronomer (please click here to support the VATT and the sorts of science discussed here). The U.S. operation that keeps the VATT running is the Vatican Observatory Foundation—hence the web address for this blog. The V.O. still has its older instruments at Castel Gandolfo, but they are used mostly for outreach. The VATT is the V.O.’s research telescope.
Below is a sampling of some recent publications or presentations featuring research that was done using the VATT. And to explain a few acronymns: “PEPSI” is “Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument”; “NEO” is “Near Earth Object”; “TNO” is “Transneptunian Object”.
Title: “PEPSI deep spectra. II. Gaia benchmark stars and other M-K standards”
Authors: Strassmeier, K. G.; Ilyin, I.; Weber, M.
Published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, Volume 612 (April 2018)
From the Abstract: High-resolution échelle spectra confine many essential stellar parameters once the data reach a quality appropriate to constrain the various physical processes that form these spectra... We provide a homogeneous library of high-resolution, high-S/N spectra for 48 bright AFGKM stars, some of them approaching the quality of solar-flux spectra... Well-exposed deep spectra were created by average-combining individual exposures. The data-reduction process relies on adaptive selection of parameters by using statistical inference and robust estimators. We employed spectrum synthesis techniques and statistics tools in order to characterize the spectra and give a first quick look at some of the science cases possible... [T]hese spectra are now made public for further data mining and analysis. Preliminary results include new stellar parameters for 70 Vir and α Tau, the detection of the rare-earth element dysprosium and the heavy elements uranium, thorium and neodymium in several RGB stars, and the use of the 12C to 13C isotope ratio for age-related determinations. We also found Arcturus to exhibit few-percent Ca II H&K and Hα residual profile changes with respect to the KPNO atlas taken in 1999... Based on data acquired with PEPSI using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT).
Title: “High Resolution Optical Spectroscopy of the Classical Nova V5668 Sgr Showing the Presence of Lithium”
Authors: Wagner, R. Mark; Woodward, Charles E.; Starrfield, Sumner; Ilyin, Ilya; Strassmeier, Klaus
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #231 (2018)
From the Abstract: The classical nova (CN) V5668 Sgr was discovered on 2015 March 15.634 and initial optical spectra implied it was an Fe II-class CN. We obtained high resolution optical spectroscopy on 30 nights between 2015 April 3 and 2016 June 5 with the 2 x 8.4 m Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the 1.8 m Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) using the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI)...
Title: “The Four-Color Broadband Photometry for Physical Characterization of Fast Rotator NEOs”
Authors: Kikwaya Eluo, Jean-Baptiste; Gilmour, Cosette M.; Fedorets, Grigori
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, DPS meeting #48 (2016)
From the Abstract: Fast rotator NEOs, having size in the range of several meters in diameter (H > 22), turn to be very faint. In order to study their physical characterization using photometry, it is required to use a system of filters that covers for each of them a large bandwidth of at least 0.8 micrometers. Traditional and inexpensive Johnson-Cousins broadband filters (B, V, R, I) work efficiently well. 11 NEOs were observed at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) from 2014 to 2016...
Title: “Two Color Populations of Kuiper Belt and Centaur Objects”
Authors: Tegler, Stephen C.; Romanishin, William; Consolmagno, Guy
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, DPS meeting #48 (2016)
From the Abstract: We present new optical colors for 64 Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) and Centaur objects measured with the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) and the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT). By combining these new colors with our previously published colors, we increase the sample size of our survey to 154 objects. Our survey is unique in that the uncertainties in our color measurements are less than half the uncertainties in the color measurements reported by other researchers in the literature... We are grateful to the NASA Solar System Observations Program for support, NAU for joining the Discovery Channel Telescope Partnership, and the Vatican Observatory for the consistent allocation of telescope time over the last 12 years of this project.
Title: “PEPSI-feed: linking PEPSI to the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope using a 450m long fibre”
Authors: Sablowski, D. P.; Weber, M.; Woche, M.; Ilyin, I.; Järvinen, A.; Strassmeier, K. G.; Gabor, P.
Published in Proceedings of the SPIE: Advances in Optical and Mechanical Technologies for Telescopes and Instrumentation II, Volume 9912 (2016).
From the Abstract: Limited observing time at large telescopes equipped with the most powerful spectrographs makes it almost impossible to gain long and well-sampled time-series observations. Ditto, high-time-resolution observations of bright targets with high signal-to-noise are rare. By pulling an optical fibre of 450m length from the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) to connect the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI) to the VATT, allows for ultra-high resolution time-series measurements of bright targets...
Title: “Discovery, observational data and the orbit of the Transneptunian object (420356) Praamzius”
Authors: Cernis, K.; Boyle, R. P.; Wlodarczyk, I.
Published in Baltic Astronomy, Vol. 25 (2016).
From the Abstract: A project for astrometric and photometric observations of asteroids with the VATT telescope on Mt. Graham is described. One of the most important results is the discovery of the Transneptunian object (420356) Praamzius. We computed its orbit applying 198 optical observations from 2003 February 1 to 2016 January 30... Using a typical albedo value of 0.08 for Centaurs and TNOs, we get a diameter of (420356) Praamzius in the range 302--425 km.
Click here for other posts pertaining to research at the Vatican Observatory.