Tag Archives: astronomy

Christmas gift ideas: Working on Mars

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

This is ideal for anyone interested in exploration of the solar system. And topical with the latest US Mars probe, Curiosity, safely on its way to Mars.


Book Review: Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Price: US$18.16; NZ$42.97; eBook NZ$20.95
Publisher: Pegasus (April 15, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1605981761
ISBN-13: 978-1605981765

This book describes Andrew Kessler’s experience when he left home and went to live on Mars. Well – almost. As he describes it:

“I spent three months in mission control with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored, photographed and dug up Mars. I was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to the physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and rocket scientists in the control room of a planetary mission to Mars. . . . For 90 days, I sat with the crew of the Phoenix mission working to explore the Martian arctic. Martian Summer is my non-fiction account of the strange life inside mission control and the people behind digging for dirt on Mars.”

This was possible because of an initiative by Peter Smith, Head of the Phoenix Mission. He organised to bring Kessler on to the team to provide some of the science outreach. Kessler had co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life, a Discovery Channel documentary about the mission. He was now “embedded” into the team at the University Of Arizona in Tucson for the 90 days of the early Phoenix programme “Martian Summer” is the result.

Phoenix Mars Lander

So the book is about the scientists and engineers in the team handling the Phoenix Mars Lander which landed on Mars May 25, 2008. It’s about the people actively involved in today’s exploration of Mars, and their work. Given the problems and cost of manned space exploration by interplanetary and planetary robots is currently the only game in town. The vehicles, and the teams running them, comprises modern interplanetary discovery.

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It’s crowded up there

The blog Periodic Videos has posted an interesting astronomical photo which “has been blighted by FIVE satellites streaking across the field of view.” (see Satellites in Shot).

Hadn’t thought of this before but with all that hardware in orbit astronomical photos of even a small part of the sky could easily be effected that way.

This video, Satellites (Deep Sky Videos preview), shows several example of this problem.

Answer simple question – win an iPad

The catch – you are limited to 140 characters on Twitter.

Oh, yes, also the entry must “explain the origins of the Universe.”

Credit: Wikipedia

Simple – should be plenty of entries for that!

I guess the trick is in the syntax, as well as the science.

Have a look at Otago University‘s Centre for Science Communication Twitter Competition for the details.

Deadline is Tuesday 15 November. You will have a chance to vote on your favourite entry from Wednesday 16 November until noon Saturday 19 November.

And, Professor Lawrence Krauss, author of the forthcoming book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, will then select the winning tweet from the five tweets receiving the highest number of votes.

I still have a week or so to solve that problem and send my entry.

Thanks to: Best Science Tweet Competition.

Where have we been?

Here’s a great graphic I picked up from Geekation. There’s a lot of information here. Click on the image to access the details – It’s worth it.

This fascinates me as I remember the first Sputnik launch in 1957. All this has happened in my lifetime!

It’s certainly changed our picture of the solar system.

Thanks to: Where have we been? A very cool picture of where we have sent probes throughout the solar system.

Rings around Uranus

We don’t often get to see images of Uranus – and certainly none like this.

Uranus and Miranda (Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech)

The astronomer Mike Brown took the photo a few days ago using one of the 10-meter twin telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

It’s an infrared image and clearly shows the rings which were discovered as recently as 1977. Several moons are also obvious – the brightest at top left being Miranda.

Mike Brown is the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. It tells the story of his work leading to the discovery of the then 10th planet. This was one of the factors leading to reclassification of planets and to Pluto’s demotion.

Thanks to Skymania: Now hotshot Mike grabs Uranus.

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Galileo’s modern critics

The Gallileo Affair - a useful primary source of documents

What is it with some philosophical and historical commenters who take sides against Galileo in his 17th century dispute with the Church?

Perhaps because we now have many documents from that period (17th century) – including Galileo’s original writings, official documents from the Inquisition and the church,  and the text of complaints made to the inquisition about Galileo’s beliefs and teachings. This itself can fuel different perspectives.

However, I think another source of this lively debate lies in the preconceived notions and beliefs of the modern protagonists. That, to me, is the only explanation for a trend (a trend – I don’t blame all) among commenters on the history of science that seeks to blame the victim (in this case Galileo) for the affair. To claim that Galileo was scientifically wrong. That the Church was correct to suppress research into a heliocentric model for the solar system. And to threaten imprisonment for anyone holding these opinions. And, inevitably, when there a preconceived beliefs, sources are selected to confirm those beliefs.

We can see one example in Andrew Brown’s blog article Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd  (see my earlier post Debates in the philosophy of science). Here, I want to take issue with his claim that the Church was partly correct in suppressing Galileo’s ideas on heliocentricism:

” Because if there is one thing that has been established in the history of science in the last 50 years, it is that in strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries, Galileo was wrong and Cardinal Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism was a beautiful theory, and Galileo would have been free to teach it as such – but the observation of stellar parallax, or rather the discovery that none could be observed, should have knocked it on the head “

There are a few points in this which need challenging.

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Historical fiction

Sometimes a historical fiction by a good and responsible author can be very informative. Of course one should always check reliable sources for details. But a good author can do a lot of that research for you. And they can add environmental and dramatic material which helps to put the details of the history into context.

I recently commented (see Waking from a coma!) about Stuart Clark’s new book. It’s the first in a trilogy of historical fiction describing the history of astronomy. The book, Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, is set around Galileo and Kepler, their scientific contributions, personal lives and their treatment by the church and society.

Having finished reading the book I can recommend it. It’s well written, informative on the  scientific history and provides good images of the culture of the times.

Some more Galileo myths

Recently some people of a historical bent have criticised my articles on Galileo. So I guess I may now be criticised for reading historical fiction after this revelation. But any such criticism will be irrelevant as I always do try to check details with reliable sources.

I am surprised at some of the criticisms I have already had. Perhaps I shouldn’t be as there are clearly some people who have motivations for misrepresenting Galileo and for criticising the status he has today. I commented on this before in The Galileo myths.

One Galileo myth I have heard came initially from a local theologian. He twisted and squirmed (as they do) to justify the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the end he actually made the claim that Galileo based his own heliocentric position on faith and that the Church based their geocentric one on the science! That Galileo was in conflict with all the scientists of the time.

This came up again recently when a commenter on another blog repeated this claim and told me that the church had consulted a committee of “scientists” in 1616 who confirmed that heliocentricism was scientifically wrong (as well as being theological heretical). I think the theologian may also have been using this to justify his claim.

(Galileo was initially investigated by the Inquisition in 1616 as a result of complaints he held the opinion of a heliocentric universe. However, the trial and conviction for which he is remembered was held in 1633).

“Scientists” or theologians?

Lets put aside the fact that a committee of “scientists’ would have been unlikely at that time (perhaps a committee of mathematicians and astronomers but not “scientists”). I pointed out that the panel was actually made up from eleven theologians – and got told I was incorrect and simply making the claim because of my “personal dislike of the Catholic Church”! Strange reaction considering I had already quoted from the preamble to Galileo’s “Inquisition’s Sentence (22 June 1633)” – a primary source”

“the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun’s stability and the earth’s motion, as follows:
That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.”

The highlighting of the word theologian is mine.

A good source of primary documents

Still one can argue about the significance of the assessor theologians report and it always best to consult the actual documents before doing so. Therefore I have provided in full below the report from the assessor theologians. You can make your own inferences on their qualifications and reasons for making the assessments they did. You can also draw your own conclusions about the extent to which they consulted the astronomers of the time.

My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted, amongst others, the most outstanding Italian astronomer of the time, who incidentally was also in Rome when they sat, Galileo.

As for the apparent unanimity and confidence of the report – I find that strange as the Church in other documents of the time was expressing concern “about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless.”


The source is Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

Consultants’ Report on Copernicanism

(24 February 1616)

Assessment made at the Holy Office, Rome, Wednesday, 24 February 1616, in the presence of the Father Theologians signed below.

Propositions to be assessed:

(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

  • Petrus Lombardus, Archbishop of Armagh.
  • Fra Hyacintus Petronius, Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace.
  • Fra Raphael Riphoz, Master of Theology and Vicar-General of the Dominican Order.
  • Fra Michelangelo Segizzi, Master of Sacred Theology and Commissary of the Holy Office.
  • Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori, Consultant to the Holy Office.
  • Fra Thomas de Lemos.
  • Fra Gregorius Nunnius Coronel.
  • Benedictus Justinianus, Society of Jesus.
  • Father Raphael Rastellius, Clerk Regular, Doctor of Theology.
  • Father Michael of Naples, of the Cassinese Congregation.
  • Fra Iacobus Tintus, assistant of the Most Reverend Father Commissary of the Holy Office.

And what about this from the Inquisition Minutes of the next day:

“The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

Rather an extreme discussion to be based on such a flimsy report, isn’t it?

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Galileo’s revolutionary contribution

A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim – which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

“Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;” “In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.”

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists – their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called “theological solution” which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this “crime” is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

“The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.”

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

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Waking from a coma!

I was listening to a Science Weekly podcast recently which got me thinking about how crap we are at predicting the future. And how this can lead to humourous situations.

I remembered the excellent film Goodbye Lenin! It’s about an East German woman Christiane, a faithful and idealistic member of the Socialist Unity Party, who had been in an extended coma through the political upheavals leading to German reunification.

When  she awakes her family do not want to disillusion her and resort to all sorts of humourous manipulations to cover up, or explain away, the political changes. Still believing she is living in a communist society she is amazed to see a poster of Lenin on the opposite building replaced by an advertisement for Coca-Cola!

The Science Weekly podcast (Science fiction and the age of astronomy) interviews the author Stuart Clark about the first book in his fictional trilogy on the history of astronomy. The book Sky’s Dark Labyrinth was published in April.

It presents a history of the lives and discoveries of Johannes Kepler and Galileo.  Clark described how different the societies of their time were compared with today. And the concept of science.

Johannes Kepler

He suggested that if either of these great men, heroes of science, were to have gone into a coma and woken up in today’s society they would have been horrified by the situation of science! They would have come from a society dominated by religion. From a time when they themselves included religious ideas in their scientific arguments. To find a modern science which has no place for religion. Where inclusion of religious arguments in science is extreme naivety.

Galileo

And yet a society where the advantages and power of the scientific method which they advocated is illustrated so well.

Very similar to Christiane’s experience in Goodby Lenin! Falling asleep in a dogmatic political/ideological environment which she idealistically supported. And waking up in a completely different, but very successful, society and ideological environment.

Mind you – if Galileo or Kepler were suddenly brought back to life and woke up in the offices of the creationist Discovery Institute in Seattle – I wonder what they would be told.

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Working on Mars

Book Review: Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Price: US$18.16; NZ$42.97; eBook NZ$20.95
Publisher: Pegasus (April 15, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1605981761
ISBN-13: 978-1605981765

This book describes Andrew Kessler’s experience when he left home and went to live on Mars. Well – almost. As he describes it:

“I spent three months in mission control with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored, photographed and dug up Mars. I was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to the physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and rocket scientists in the control room of a planetary mission to Mars. . . . For 90 days, I sat with the crew of the Phoenix mission working to explore the Martian arctic.  Martian Summer is my non-fiction account of the strange life inside mission control and the people behind digging for dirt on Mars.”

This was possible because of an initiative by Peter Smith, Head of the Phoenix Mission. He organised to bring Kessler on to the team to provide some of the science outreach. Kessler had co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life, a Discovery Channel documentary about the mission. He was now “embedded” into the team at the University Of Arizona in Tucson for the 90 days of the early Phoenix programme “Martian Summer” is the result.

Phoenix Mars Lander

So the book is about the scientists and engineers in the team handling the Phoenix Mars Lander which landed on Mars May 25, 2008. It’s about the people actively involved in today’s exploration of Mars, and their work. Given the problems and cost of manned space exploration by interplanetary and planetary robots is currently the only game in town. The vehicles, and the teams running them, comprises modern interplanetary discovery.

Continue reading