Thursday, July 9, 2009

To a galaxy far, far away

Woohoo! July's theme for the Year of Science is astronomy.

Astronomy is arguably the mother of sciences. Looking at the sky, and measuring and recording what is there to be seen, is very old. It goes back to Egypt and Babylonia (and other early civilizations, no doubt). The early predictions -- the timing of the Nile floods, say -- could be utilitarian; they were no less scientific for that. And the recording could be cumbersome -- such as, perhaps, Stonehenge, plausibly a big calculator of the seasons. Still: astronomy.

(Some would call astrology the mother of sciences. Not me: astrology is devoid of such basic scientific notions as "observation" and "test your theory by making predictions." Call astrology wishful thinking or magic or gibberish, as you wish. It's not a science.)

Certainly astronomy was my first science. I had a 3-inch telescope as a little kid. Even before that, I sometimes borrowed my dad's binocs to look at the moon.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo first used a telescope to study objects in the sky.

It continues to amaze me how much, and how often, astronomers have recast our understanding of the universe and humanity's place in the universe. From Earth-centrism to heliocentrism. From heliocentrism to a place in the fringes of the galaxy. From humans living in the one all-encompassing sea of stars, to living in one of the many galaxies in a far grander universe. From living in a static universe to knowing that the universe is forever rushing apart.

Along the way, the human urge to know more about the sky has inspired amazing technologies, from single huge radio-astronomy antennae like the Green Bank Telescope, to arrays of radio telescopes, to the Hubble space telescope, to the SOHO spacecraft at the L1 Lagrange point, to an ever-increasing cadre of robotic explorers.

Some people look at the night sky and come away with a sense of their own insignificance. I look at it, and think how much we have learned, and come away inspired.


Catreona said...

Excellent post, Ed. Thanks.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Catreona.

- Ed