Sunday, July 18, 2010

Science Sunday: Stargazing & Realizing That You're A Pimple On The Ass Of Time

My younger brother has always been the most scientifically minded -- which is to say most curious about how things work -- in our family.

He figured out how to take apart our front door lock set when he was four, but not how to reassemble it, thereby locking out our parents. He figured out how to hot wire a bulldozer when he was six, but not how to drive it, which resulted in a perilous but short ride into a sewer excavation behind our home. And so you might say that he was given a telescope as a Christmas present when he was 10 or so as a form of self defense. And neighborhood safety.

It was through that modest Fisher Scientific telescope that I first saw the craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn and Jupiter's Great Red Spot. I was soon hooked on stargazing, and eventually what I consider it's "twin" -- navel contemplation. This is because many hours of looking through the eyepieces of telescopes over the years has given me a perspective, as well as a sense of awe, about our world and the greater universe around it.

As Marcia Bartusiak notes in her wonderful The Day We Found the Universe, because of the stunning telescope images of the cosmos, we now take the extraordinary for granted. That is if you're not of the God made the world in seven days persuasion.

Indeed, there is nothing quite like realizing that you are a pimple on the ass of time.

A confluence of circumstances pushed this pimple to write about stargazing and the telescope.

First, the rare book and manuscript library where I labor has the only collection of the notebooks of Thomas Harriot outside of the British Library. In fact, we have
photocopies of the originals, which were found by a distinguished faculty member of my university in, believe it or not, a big trunk in the dank cellar of a castle on a moor after having gone missing for centuries.

Harriot (right), who is considered the English Galileo, was the first
person to make a drawing of the Moon through a telescope -- actually a spyglass converted to a telescope -- in July 1609, over four months before Galileo Galilei did the deed with a telescope of his own invention.

Harriot was a true Renaissance man. He founded the English school of algebra, was the first mathematician to set an equation equal to zero and then factor it, the creator of modern algebraic symbols such as "greater than" and "less than" signs, and the first to explore the potential of binary numeration. He also dabbled in navigation and physics and discovered the sine law of refraction, which explains the bending of light, sailed to the New World with Sir Walter Raleigh, and spent quality time in the Tower of London when he was on the outs with the crown.

Secondly, among my library's many holdings is the first edition a book by Galileo (left) that was loaned to the Franklin Institute for its amazing exhibition -- "Galileo: The Medici & The Age of Astronomy" -- celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Venetian's first telescope.

Thirdly, I just finished The Day We Found the Universe.

And finally, the wonderful website Ars Technica has done much of my work for me in a riveting essay on the evolution of the telescope. I urge you to read it.

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