Awed by the genius of early astronomers
Published 2:41 pm, Wednesday, March 11, 2015
(The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford-area residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.)
Dear friends of the McCarthy Observatory:
One of the most interesting and exciting topics in astronomy for our volunteer team over the years has been that of delving into the history of astronomy.
As the "first field of science," we stand in awe of those who figured out through great leaps of insight and incredibly hard work what we are looking at, and how the universe works.
It is truly inspiring to learn about the individuals and the times they lived in and the tools at their disposal. It is in many ways like watching a giant jigsaw puzzle being fit together piece by piece over many many centuries.
We have a wonderful library at the observatory, with a rich set of books about this history and its many heroes, and cold snowy winter nights are ideal for exploring this past.
We marvel at the many heroes: Brahe, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, Romer, Cassini, William and Caroline Herschel, Messier, and many more, all building upon a foundation from the likes of Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Aristotle and Aristarchus.
Isaac Newton's famous 1676 quote, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," gives great credit to so many who accomplished astonishing things in astronomy and the mathematics of that science.
None lifted him higher than Galileo, which leads us to the point of all this.
In 1610, Galileo studied two things that are high in the sky right now, that helped prove we exist in the sun-centered solar system. Copernicus had beautifully described almost 70 years earlier and as Aristarchus had predicted almost two millennia earlier. They are Jupiter and Venus, two of the best objects to see for all of us.
In early 1610, Galileo discovered the four largest moons orbiting Jupiter, and proved they actually were moons orbiting another body.
His many observations were published in March 1610, and the start of modern astronomy was underway.
In late 1610, Galileo observed Venus many times, and saw that it has phases like the moon and got larger and smaller to his eye over time, proving it was closer to the sun and orbiting the sun, and not the earth, as fully theorized by Copernicus.
We can easily recreate his work and enjoy both the science and the beauty of both of these planets right now on any clear evening.
Venus will continue to get higher in the sky and brighter over the next couple of months. One of the riddles of Venus is that it is brightest to our eye when it has its "thinnest" crescent phase from our point of observation.
See if you can figure out why.
Come visit, and relive the excitement of Galileo's discoveries, through far better instruments.
Breaking space news: the Dawn vehicle successfully arrived March 6 at dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, after 7.5 years and 3.1 billion miles of travel.
Dawn is bristling with superb instruments, already field tested when the vehicle orbited Vesta, so the science from this first vehicle to do lengthy exploration of a dwarf planet promises to be amazing.
Hats off to NASA and many collaborating organizations for this great achievement.