Babe Among the Stars

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

2009 - the International Year of Astronomy

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 gives all nations a chance to participate in this ongoing exciting scientific and technological revolution.

– Catherine Cesarsky, President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU)

This year has been chosen by the United Nations as the 'International Year of Astronomy' (IYA2009) because it marks the 400th anniversary1 of Italian mathematician and philosopher Galileo Galilei being the first person to study and record astral bodies through a powerful telescope. Galileo viewed such wonders as Saturn's rings, the moons of Jupiter and features of the Moon.

Sir Thomas Harriot

Galileo was not the first selenographer2; the first Moon map (that we know of) was sketched on 26 July, 1609, by English mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Harriot (1560 - 1621). His lunar map, extolled by Sir Patrick Moore as 'better than Galileo's', will go on display in the summer in Florence, Italy, as part of a Galileo exhibition. It is the intention of the organisers of IYA2009 (UK) to raise the profile of Thomas Harriot a little. Some of Harriot's other sketches will be available for viewing at the Science Museum in London at the IYA2009 exhibition called Cosmos and Culture from 23 July onwards.

Harriot didn't just map the Moon: there will also be an exhibition of his works, featuring drawings of sunspots plus a diagram of the jovian system (Jupiter's moons), at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, commencing 24 July. Harriot's sketch of Halley's comet dated 1607 is also included — but it was not known as Halley's comet then as Halley had not yet been born. On the 400th anniversary of his first lunar observation, Sunday, 26 July, 2009, a memorial plaque will be unveiled during a major event to be held at Syon Park, in the grounds of Syon House, Harriot's residence in West London. Planned activities include: exhibitions (including pictures, early telescopes and archive material), demonstrations of solar telescopes and an opportunity to view the Planetarium.

Tycho Brahe

We can trace the 'modern' way of thinking back further to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose measurements of the supernova of 1572 marked a milestone in the history of science by revealing that the 'new star' was located far beyond the Moon. This was a direct contradiction of Ptolemy and Aristotle's teaching that stars were fixed and unchangeable - the philosophy which had reigned for almost two millennia. It also appeared to confirm the theory of one Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy, who had published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium ('On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres') in 1543. Such ideas in those times were against the doctrine of the Catholic church and supporters were usually treated as heretics and dealt with accordingly.

The Pope and the Heretic

Giordano Bruno, (the author of On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), thought (and stated out loud) that we live on a tiny world orbiting an insignificant star, and as such are only a small player in the grand scheme of things. He even dared to suggest that space was boundless and that our solar system was possibly one of any number of similar systems, and that there might even be other planets like the Earth, inhabited by sentient beings similar to ourselves. In the year 1600, on the orders of the Catholic Inquisition, Giordano Bruno was burned alive at the stake for refusing to recant his beliefs3. He, and other heretics received a formal apology for being 'executed in error' from Pope John Paul II on a special 'Request for Forgiveness Day' in March 2000.

Today there is an observatory at Castel Gandolfo4 in the Alban Hills, 25km (15½ miles) south-east of Rome for the current Pope, Benedict XVI, to enjoy to his heart's content, as other leaders of the papacy have before him. Technological advances have not shaken the beliefs of the religious bodies; it is (sometimes) accepted that faith in whatever God whose teaching you choose to follow does not clash with science because it operates on a different level: accumulating data, experimentation and seeking to gain knowledge. Pope Benedict XVI, who has said that 'an understanding of the laws of nature could stimulate appreciation of God's work', is supporting the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

The Astronomer Royal

Sir Martin Rees (now Lord Rees) has been the UK's Astronomer Royal since 1995. Lord Rees is a Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, and President of the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science — a position previously held by luminaries such as Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Humphry Davy. Lord Rees has written a book called Our Final Century detailing the events which may cause the human race to become extinct before the turn of the next century. These include man-made disasters like bio-engineered viruses and nuclear war, as well as natural phenomena such as eruptions of supervolcanoes, earthquakes with accompanying global tsunamis, and possible asteroid impacts. It may be prudent to begin planning your survival pack sooner rather than later, just in case Lord Rees is proven correct. Certainly, with his credentials, no-one is scoffing at his ideas of the demise of the human race or the cessation of society as we know it. Lord Rees is supporting the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, indeed, he is the UK's spokesperson.

  • The UK Astronomy Directory is a page full of useful links which is worth bookmarking if you are planning on organising or attending an astronomical event this year. Wishing you clear skies and an enjoyable year of interesting observations!

  • Chat about your celestial observances by starting a new conversation below.

Babe Among the Stars Archive

Galaxy Babe

22.01.09 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1The year is also significantly the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's small step onto the surface of the Moon in 1969.2Moon-mapper.3Interestingly, Father Gabriel Funes, the Pope's chief astronomer, has now publicly agreed with Giordano Bruno, by stating that extra-terrestrial life could exist.4The Pope's summer residence.

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