Conjunction of Moon and Venus


Here are some photos made from my balcony (facing west) over the last few days. Except perhaps on the first two photos, the remaining apparent positions  would qualify for conjunctions.

The Moon was approaching Venus on 25 January 2012 (Photo 1 and 2).

Photo 1 (17.27pm)

Photo 2 (18.01pm)

Then on 26 January the Moon got very close to Venus (Photos 3 and 4)

Photo 3 (17.32pm)

Photo 4 (19.00pm)

A few days later, on 30 January 2012, the Moon got close to Jupiter (Photo 5, 22:04pm)

What Causes Change of Seasons?


In the academic year 2010/11, I conducted a poll among 74 students at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, examining their knowledge of basic scientific facts. A half of the population were freshers, the other half were students of the second, third, fourth and fifth years of their studies, with about an equal distribution within that group. One of the questions was this:

Change of seasons is caused by:

(a) variation in the angle of the Sun’s radiation due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation

(b) variation of distance of the Earth from the Sun due to the elliptical orbit of the Earth

(c) periodic variations in Solar activity

59% of the students did not know that (a) is the correct answer. A large majority of them (55% of the total population) thought that (b) was the correct answer. To many, (b) may seem an obvious answer. Of course, people who hold that belief, and who live in the Northern hemisphere, are regularly surprised to learn that Earth is closest to the Sun (perihelion) in early January, when they typically experience winter cold. Also, they immediately see that their belief is contrary to the fact that winter cold in the Northern hemisphere coincides with summer warmth in the Southern hemisphere. For if the proximity to the Sun were the cause of summer warmth, it would be so on the whole plant.

In the formulation of answer (b) I added a hint about the elliptical orbit of the Earth because I supposed that the common knowledge of the ellipticity of planetary orbits (Kepler’s First Law) would suggest an explanation for variations in the Earth’s distance from the Sun, and thus subtly endorse the false answer. However, the supposition of the ellipticity of planetary orbits is not necessary for the false belief that the change of seasons is caused by variation in distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Here is an example from Aristotle:

For this reason it is not the primary locomotion which is the cause of generation and corruption, but that in the inclined circle. For in this latter there is both continuity and being moved with two movements; for, if there is always to be continuous generation and corruption, there has always to be, on the one hand, something being moved so that these changes may not fail, and, on the other hand, two movements, to prevent there being only one of the two results. So the locomotion of the whole is the cause of the continuity, whilst the inclination is the cause of the approach and retreat. For this results in its coming to be further away at one time and nearer at another, and since the distance is unequal the movement will be irregular. So, if it generates by approaching and being near, this same thing destroys by retreating and coming to be further away. (De generatione et corruptione II.10 336a31-b7; tr. Williams)

In other words, the Sun’s annual motion along the ecliptic, which is inclined, is the cause of the Sun’s approaching and retreating from the Earth, thereby causing the seasons, in particular spring and summer, which bring about heat conducive to generation of living beings, and then also autumn and winter, which bring about cold conducive to destruction of living beings. This is very clear from another passage:

The efficient, controlling and first cause is the circle of the Sun’s revolution. For it is evident that as it approaches or recedes the Sun produces dissolution and composition and is thus the cause of generation and destruction. (Meteorologica I.9 346b22-24; tr. Lee)

Now this is puzzling for two reasons. First, Aristotle did not think that the Sun is made of fire or that it produces any heat by itself. Rather, he thought that it is the friction between the uppermost sublunary (fiery) layer and the lowermost superlunary (ethereal) layer that generates heat, but that was a subject of controversy even in the Peripatetic school, so we may put that aside.

Second, Aristotle subscribed to a Eudoxan theory of the heavens, which involves a number of nested concentric spheres with the Earth in the middle. But if the Earth is in the middle, and the Sun is carried by several concentric spheres (3 according to Eudoxus, 5 according to Callipus, 9 according to Aristotle; cf. Metaph. XII.8), how can he account for the supposed variation in the distance between the Sun and the Earth, that is for the Sun’s ‘approach’ and ‘retreat’?

One may try to solve this problem by supposing that by ‘approach’ (prosienai) and ‘retreat’ (apienai) he means merely approach to it highest point at summer solstice and retreat to its lowest point at winter solstice. But that won’t do, since Aristotle in the first passage above explicitly connects ‘approaching’ with ‘being near’ (engus) and ‘generating’ (presumably, through heat), and on the other hand ‘retreating’ with ‘being farther away’ (porrō) and ‘destroying’ (presumably, through cold). How can he have variation in ‘being near’ and ‘being farther away’ if the Sun is carried by a set of concentric spheres? The suggestions that the spheres are not perfectly regular, or that the Earth is not in the centre of these spheres, can be rejected straight away in light of Aristotle’s statements in the De caelo.

I am not aware that this problem has been raised in scholaraly literature (though my search hasn’t been thorough at all), and at the moment I do not have an answer to it. But I would welcome any hints and suggestions.

The Finest Map of Mars


Using nearly 21.000 images from the the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, researchers at Arizona State University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have compiled a global map of the Martian surface with unprecedented detail. At full zoom, the smallest details visible are about 100 meters across. The map can be accessed here  (allow a minute or so for data to upload).

Unchanging heavens


It is well-know that the Aristotelian conception of the universe, adopted with some adaptations in the Middle Ages, divided the universe in two essentially different parts: the sublunar world of the four elements with their natural places – thus forming the layers of earth, water, air and fire – and the supralunar world of the fifth element, aither. The four elements have different natural motions (earth and water naturally go down, fire and air up), and objects made of them in various mixtures undergo all forms of change, including generation and destruction. The fifth element’s natural motion is circular, and objects made of it – the celestial spheres and stars attached to them – undergo only one sort of change, and that is change of place, or more precisely circular locomotion. Because they are made of the fifth element, the heavens and the stars are completely unchangeable.

In De caelo I.3, 270b12-16, Aristotle wrote: “Throughout all past time, according to the records handed down from generation to generation, nothing is observed to have changed either in the whole of the outermost heaven <viz. the sphere of the fixed stars> or in any of its proper parts.”

Simplicius (6th century AD) comments on this sentence that, according to his knowledge, astronomical records of the Egyptians go back 630.000 years, of and the Babylonians 1.440.000 years. This is surely a gross overstatement, but their records were certainly older than the Greeks’ for several hundred years. “In all that time since the records have been passed on,” writes Simplicius, “there is no mention of anything being different in the heavens than today, either concerning (i) the number of stars, or (ii) their sizes, or (iii) their colours, or (iv) their regular motions” (117.27-30 Heiberg) 

Ad (i): The exact number of stars has been proverbial in antiquity as beyond human cognition. In fact, however, there are only some six thousand stars visible to the naked eye in a typical dark night.

One way for the number of stars to change, of course, would be if a new star appears in the sky. It is well-know that Tycho Brahe observed a new star in November 1572 (SN 1572) and he described it in his 1573 treatise De stella nova. He argued that it showed no daily parallax against the background of the fixed stars, which means that it cannot be a sublunar phenomenon. Tycho concluded that the traditional view of the heavens as unchangeable cannot be correct. This observation was instrumental in overthrowing the traditional view in early modern age.

Before Tycho, we have records of two more new star observations in the West, both made by Islamic astronomers: in 1054 (SN 1054) and in 1006 (SN 1006). Weren’t there any observable supernovas in antiquity? The earliest positively recorded supernova was in 185 AD (SN 185), viewed by Chinese astronomers in the southern sky. Other than that, we have a report that Hipparchus, the greatest observational astronomer of antiquity, saw a “new star” in 134 BC. Pliny wrote in his monumental work Natural History, Book II.95: “Hipparchus before-mentioned, who can never be sufficiently praised, no one having done more to prove that man is related to the stars and that our souls are a part of heaven, detected a new star that came into existence during his lifetime; the movement of this star in its line of radiance led him to wonder whether this was a frequent occurrence, whether the stars that we think to be fixed are also in motion; and consequently he did a bold thing, that would be reprehensible even for God – he dared to schedule the stars for posterity, and tick off the heavenly bodies by name in a list, devising machinery by means of which to indicate their several positions and magnitudes, in order that from that time onward it might be possible easily to discern not only whether stars perish and are born, but whether some are in transit and in motion, and also whether they increase and decrease in magnitude.”  However, the stella nova observed by Hipparchus seems to have been a comet, given that Hipparchus  mentions its proper motion, and comets were deemed to be sublunar phenomena in Aristotle’s theory (cf. J. K. Fotheringham). This explains Simplicius’ confident claim that there has been no record of change in the number of stars. In any case, much like Charles Messier eighteen hundred years later, with his catalogue of nebulae not to be confused with comets, Hipparchus made a star atlas so that any new stars or proper motions of stars can be more easily detected.

Ad (ii):  The size (megethos) of stars must refer to their brightness. And what is truly striking is that ancient and medieval astronomers failed to observe variable stars, that is stars of changing brightness. There are tens of stars in the northern sky whose variations are easily detectable with the naked eye. Of course, one needs to know where to look, but more importantly – one needs to be open to the idea that variations are possible, and that seems to be something that ancient and medieval astronomers lacked. Even if they did observe a variation in brightness, they would probably dismiss it as a result of atmoshperic changes. This is a nice example of theory not only guiding observation, but also obstructing it.

Ad (iii): The ancients were well aware of different colours of stars and planets, but there is no record – to my knowledge – that they ever observed variation in their colour. However, it would be extremely difficult to observe such a variation without a spectrograph.

Ad (iv): Famously, Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes, the slow movement of the equinoctial points from east to west among the stars along the ecliptic, which we know today is due to the wobble of the Earth’s axis. Would that not be a counterexample to Simplicius’ claim that there has been no record of any change in the regular motion of stars? Perhaps not, if the precession of the equinoxes can be explained as another regular motion. However, this could only be a regular motion of the sphere of the fixed stars, and I am not aware that anyone in antiquity entertained the idea that the sphere of the fixed stars undergoes any other than the diurnal motion.

Perhaps someone can help me with this. (1) How did ancient astronomers and philosophers explain the precession of the equinoxes? (2) How come that Simplicius could affirm point (iv) in the light of Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession? Needless to say, other comments are most welcome.

Two Pictures of Venus


I’m not much of an astro-photographer, but I did make two nice shots with my old Sony DSC-W5 that may be worth sharing.

The first shot was made on 6 June 2010 from Damnoni beach on the island of Crete (35° 10′ 27.65″ N, 24° 24′ 51.63″ E). If you click to enlarge, to the right of Venus you will clearly see the two brightest stars of the constellation Gemini, the orange Pollux (β Gem, closer to Venus) and the white binary Castor (α Gem, further to the right). Dante was born in the sign of Gemini and he speaks of the two stars as “gli eterni Gemelli” (Paradiso, XXII.112/116):

O glorious stars, O light impregnated
  With mighty virtue, from which I acknowledge
  All of my genuius, whatsoe’er it be.
With you was born, and hid himself with you,
  He who is father of all mortal life…

The second shot was made on 14 June 2010 from my elevated west-facing balcony in Zagreb. Venus made a nice appearance with the waxing crescent Moon over the city periphery landscape.

8 Wonders of the Solar System


Scientific American online has published an amazing virtual tour of the far corners of the Solar System, called 8 Wonders of the Solary System. Breathtaking images were designed by the Hugo Award-winning artist Ron Miller, supplemented by audio and textual material.  

Whoever hasn’t seen this, they should do so. It’s truly awe-inspiring.

Growth of the International Space Station


The International Space Station (ISS) is an internationally developed research facility that is being assembled in low orbit. On-orbit construction of the station began in 1998 and is scheduled for completion by 2011. Here is a nice animated diagram which shows how the ISS has grown from 1998 to date, piece by piece.

The ISS is one of the favourite targets of amature astronomers and stargazers. Here is a fantastic photo of it, against the background of the Sun’s circle, made by the distinguished French astro-photographer Thierry Legault. Explore his web-page for more stunning astrophotos.

More on Hubble Space Telescope


National Geographic of February 2010 brings a nice article entitled “Hubble Renewed”, with some recent photographs made with the Hubble Space Telescope. There are a few comparisons of pictures before and after the overhaul last May. You can read and/or download the article here.

A lavishly illustrated monograph on the Hubble Space Telescope can be found here.

The Flammarion Woodcut


I bet you have seen this picture before. If not in black and white, then perhaps you’ve seen in it in colour. This is a much recycled illustration, reprinted many times, with or without adaptation, in various books, on book and magazine covers, posters and adverts.  This illustration is famous on at least two accounts. First, it is famous on account of its uncertain date and origin. For instance, Ernst Zimmer, a German historian of astronomy, thinks that the woodcut goes back to the early 16th centuty, to the school of Albrecht Dürer. Owen Gingerich, the historian of astronomy of Harvard University and the Smithsonian, is convinced that it occurs for the first time in Ernst Kraemers five-volume popular science book Weltall und Menschheit from 1907. However, two scholars, Arthur Beer, an astrophysicist and historian of German science at Cambridge, and Bruno Weber, the curator of rare books at the Zürich central library, have independently traced the illustration back to Camille Flammarion’s popular science book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire from 1888.

Second, the illustration is famous on account of its rich symbolism which is taken to represent the mediaeval world-view. The illustration depicts a flat Earth bounded by the sky. The man, dressed as a mediaeval pilgrim and carrying a pilgrim’s stick, peers through the boundary and sees the hidden workings of the universe. The prominent element of the cosmic machinery in the top left corner looks like the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” described in the visions of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (1:4-26). You can learn more about the woodcut’s symbolism from the wikipedia page dedicated to it and from Kerry Magruder’s page. What you cannot learn there, however, is the following.

Look at the pilgrim’s stick. Curious place to lay it down, don’t you think? Why would the stick be laid down half protruding through the curtain of the sky? Here is an explanation. The illustration is probably making reference to a famous passage from Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in which Simplicius refers to Eudemus’ report of Archytas’ thought experiment. (Eudemus of Rhodes was Aristotle’s pupil who wrote a history of astronomy, and Archytas was a Pythagorean philosopher whom Plato knew and from whom he probably learnt much of what he says in the Timaeus.) Anyway, here’s Archytas question:

“If I came to be at the edge, for example at the heaven of the fixed stars, could I stretch my hand or my stick outside, or not? That I should not stretch it out would be absurd, but if I do stretch it out, what is outside will be either body or place.”

“Thus Archytas will always go on,” Simplicius recounts, “in the same way to the freshly chosen limit, and will ask the same question. If it is always something different into which the stick is stretched, it will clearly be something infinite” (In Arist. Phys. 467.26-32).

The Epicureans and the Stoics used and elaborated on Archytas’ argument for the infinity of space or void. Also, it is found in slightly different versions in Locke, Newton and Kant. Modern physics would answer that space could be finite without having an edge, as presupposed by Archytas’ argument.

Be that as it may, I think we have an explanation for the protruding stick. Whoever was the author of the woodcut, he seems to have known the original Archytas’ formulation of the argument which mentions stretching out “hand or stick”.

The Fate of the Hubble Space Telescope


The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most widely appreciated scientific instruments ever constructed. It provided data that helped us understand the nature and magnitude of the universe we live in, and it had an immense public outreach. With the last service mission, in May 2009, Hubble‘s life has been extended for another five years. In 2014 it is expected to go out of service and be partially replaced by James Webb Space Telescope. Hubble may stay in orbit for a few more years, but it is now fitted with a docking adapter that will enable a robotic spacecraft to dock with the telescope and bring it into controlled reentry over the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the bulk of the telescope will be destroyed at the reentry.

There have been plans to bring Hubble back to Earth at the end of its operational life and putting it at the Smithsonian. The plans have been abandoned for reasons of cost and safety. It is estimated that a dedicated Space Shuttle mission for this purpose would cost around $1 billion, with substantial risk to the lives of astronauts. Besides, the Space Shuttle fleet is planned to go out of service in 2010.

Here’s a question to think about. Suppose that the plan for retiring the Space Shuttle fleet is no obstacle, and that the mission to retreive Hubble poses no special risk to the lives of astronauts. Would it be worth spending $1 billion for the sake of salvaging a museum piece? No doubt, it would be an extraordinary museum piece, the instrument that expanded our understanding of the universe like no other, an object of enduring value for generations to cherish. One might think of the number of people that could be fed with $1 billion, but even if we exclude such humanitarian reasoning, wouldn’t it be better to invest the money into the building of a comparable scientific instrument? The cost of design, construction and launch of Hubble‘s successor, James Webb Space Telescope, is estimated at $3,5 billion, so $1 billion is a significant fraction of that amount. So, here is the dilemma: $1 billion for a museum piece of extraordinary emotional and intellectual value, or for the construction of a comparable scientific instrument destined to expand our knowledge still further.

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