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FEBRUARY 6, 2011: Anaxagoras
Isaac Newton reasoned that if he had seen farther than others, it was only because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Others, like Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho, and Kepler, made contributions which allowed Newton to synthesize his theories to explain the motions of planets quantitatively. Similarly, Anaxagoras (500-428 BC), an early Greek philosopher, glimpsed the future, but unlike Newton, he was unable to complete the fabrication. His construction of the universe was geocentric (Earth-centered) with the moon, sun, and stars revolving in circular paths about a stationary, hollow Earth. He believed that the universe was composed of an infinite number of “seeds” which were set in motion by the force of “Mind,” the controlling intelligence of the entire cosmos. The motion of these particles initiated their eventual separation into the observable bodies in the sky, and eventually brought the Earth to the center of the universe. Anaxagoras realized that the moon shone by reflected sunlight and lunar phases were a function of the moon orbiting the Earth. The Milky Way was considered a reflection phenomenon caused when the sun, a fiery hot mass of ore, was below the horizon. The stars (hot rocks) were so distant that their heat was not evident. The assumption that the moon was closer to the Earth than the sun, which in turn was closer than the stars, allowed Anaxagoras to explain the correct geometry for eclipses. Although Anaxagoras probably did not synthesize most of his conclusions through actual field observations of the sky, he clearly realized the importance of deductive reasoning based upon what was considered valid information for that period. This was certainly a more powerful tool than the wild, uncontrolled speculation of his predecessors and a step toward a more reasoned approach which would be practiced by future Greek philosophers.
FEBRUARY 13, 2011: Best Time for Winter's Finest
Have you noticed the days lengthening and that extra bit of afternoon warmth trapped in your car by the time you leave work? The next 60 days are going to see some major changes—nearly 2-1/2 hours more daylight, and the sun climbing over 20 degrees higher in the sky at noon. It is also that transition period when we can get some of our biggest snowfalls; so don’t think that this is any prognostication for an early spring even though Punxsutawney Phil predicted the end of winter was near. I call this the time of high winter because, if you venture out of doors right after dark, the winter group of constellations will be spread out before you like a splash of bright glitter high in the south. Orion, the Hunter, is the centerpiece with its three tipped belt stars, Mintaka (top), Alnilam (middle), and Alnitak (bottom) pointing downward towards Sirius, the brightest luminary of the night and upward to Aldebaran, the reddish eye of the Bull. Continue past the eye to the Pleiades nestled on Taurus’ shoulder like a tiny patch of frozen breath in the cold night air. Orion’s red shoulder star, Betelgeuse, and diamond blue, Rigel, sling you upward to mortal Caster and immortal Pollux, the two faithful Gemini Twin brothers. Amidst all of this brightness will also be the moon in the Winter Group during the first half of the week and to its left after Wednesday. Above Orion and nearly scraping the zenith is Capella of Auriga, the Charioteer. They won’t be around for too much longer. Not only does the daily plodding of earth’s position around the sun cause these star patterns to set four minutes earlier each night, but the later sunsets also bring these same stars into visibility later each evening. The rapid changes that will herald the onset of spring will also be manifested in just as rapid an exiting of the old guard. See a map of winter’s finest in this week’s web edition of StarWatch at the URL listed below.
FEBRUARY 20, 2011: Vega and the Prince
When I was a volunteer astronomer at Chaco Culture near Nageezi, NM, I worked with a former Exxon executive named Johnny Prince. Prince headed Exxon’s initiative to clean up the Alaskan coastline after the
oil spill in March of 1989. Johnny could be quite a fistful, and on those rare occasions when his demeanor seemed more like a boardroom CEO, our little cadre would gently remind him that he had been responsible for releasing two friendly seals that Exxon had spent hundred of thousands of dollars rehabilitating. It was a huge media event which deflated immediately when one of the mammals was eaten by a killer whale. In all fairness, Johnny Prince was really a decent guy, and I enjoyed his camaraderie, especially when we were observing or photographing the night sky. On one such occasion, Johnny was having trouble with his computerized drive. He had a beautiful refractor, but the drive which allowed the scope to follow the stars was a handful. After tinkering with it for hours he realized that he had forgotten a book containing star positions and couldn’t initialize the mount without it. So he yelled matter-of-factly to me, inquiring whether I knew the precise coordinates of Vega, the bright star that was nearly over our heads. I smiled because I knew the precise coordinates of only one star in the entire sky and that was Vega, the star from which “the message” was transmitted back to Earth in the movie,
. I closed my eyes and watched Jodie Foster’s surprised look as she realized the radio telescopes were picking up ET. Her lithe body jumped into the driver’s seat of her convertible. Reaching for her walky-talky, she (I) screamed, “Right ascension 18 hr., 36 min., 56.2 sec.; declination +36 deg., 46 min. 56.2 sec. Confirm!” Okay, Jodie was off just a little, but Johnny Prince never asked me for another stellar coordinate again.
with his wife at a small Chaco gathering in 2000. Gary A. Becker image...
FEBRUARY 27, 2011: Earth: Still Shaking and Baking
We live on the most dynamic planet in the solar system with volcanoes and earthquakes the easiest forms of tectonic movement that we can identify. This activity is all linked to the heat trapped within the Earth and how our planet is slowly dispersing it, 4.5 billion years after its creation. Consider that the Earth’s crust is divided into about 15 major plates. These are similar to ice cubes jostling for position in a large pan of water. Plates, like the North American upon which we live, are floating on a denser and plastic asthenosphere located about seven to 45 miles beneath our feet. What drives the heat engine of the Earth are regions called mid-oceanic ridges, where the crust is being heated and forced upward because of its lower density. Volcanoes beneath the ocean’s surface are erupting and causing the seafloor to spread apart over tens of millions of years to places where they meet resistance from other plates. Here they are pushed downward or subducted. Earthquakes and volcanoes are the order of the day in such locations. Still other plates ram each other at speeds of one to two inches per year thrusting up huge mountains like the Alps and Himalayas. Other plates chaff, building up pressure over hundred to thousands of years only to lurch, causing powerful earthquakes that can level cities and send tsunamis across thousands of miles of open seas to devastate distant coastlines. Lastly are the plumes of heat that seem to originate deep within the mantle of the Earth, rising and radiating their steady supply of energy to create volcanic hotspots. Hawaii is a prime example of such a location and so is Yellowstone National Park. If you want it any rougher, then go live on Io, the second smallest of the Galilean moons of Jupiter. There you’ll only have to contend with a continual barrage of volcanoes spewing sulfur over an airless and hellish landscape.