Tuesday, 17 February 2009


“I've loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” – Galileo Galilei

Have you ever stood beneath a clear night sky out in the countryside somewhere, away from the glare of city lights, hearing only the quiet sounds of the night? The chirp of a cricket, the hoot of an owl, mysterious rustlings of undergrowth and the occasional swish of the wind in the tree boughs? Have you gazed up at the immense sky strewn with flashing stars, sparkling like gemstones, traced out the constellations, observed a planet or two, looked at the great river of the milky way? I have had this experience may a time, but perhaps nowhere as awe-inspiring as in the Australian Outback, where the solitary location, the knowledge that the any other human being is probably more than 200, 300 kilometres away, and also of course, the perfect conditions for viewing the starry sky.

One feels very small and insignificant in this type of situation, with the great inverted bowl made of deep blue velvet and embroidered with thousands of diamonds. The earth around one seems to be an endless plain and the night sounds soon fade into one’s subconscious so that one can hear perhaps what the ancients called the “music of the spheres”… The glittering light show above one’s head is awesome and terrifying in its enormity, when one considers the infinity of distances radiating outward into outer space, the amazing knowledge that some of the light beams that strike one’s retina have been travelling for millions upon millions of years.

The night sky and the stars have fascinated human beings ever since they developed a consciousness of the world around them and their place in it. Is it small wonder that they chose to populate the sky with their gods as soon as they had conceived of the idea of the divine? The heavens above inspire and terrify us; we look upwards in prayer and consternation; we fear the unknown above and our awe is mirrored in our fascination with all things to do with space. Astrology came long before astronomy, and scientific method still has not managed to slay the beasts of the zodiac.

On January 15th this year, astronomers from around the globe gathered in Paris and celebrated the official beginning of the International Year of Astronomy, 2009 (IYA2009). It is no coincidence that this year also happens to be the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the telescope. 400 years ago, in the University of Padua in Italy, professor Galileo Galilei, a precocious Italian of relatively modest achievement, had the bright idea of turning a modified spyglass toward the night sky. What he saw forever shattered the ancient Earth-centered cosmos. Galileo very nearly risked the wrath of the Catholic Church and excommunication, and it was grudgingly that he recanted his revolutionary ideas, all the while muttering under his breath that the “earth did indeed move around the sun” (against the geocentric ideas of the Church at that time).

In honour of some of the famous astronomers of the past, here listed, IYA2009 will be a good year for the cosmos!

Aristarchus of Samos (Greece 310 BC - ca. 230 BC);
Claudius Ptolemaeus (Alexandria, after AD 83–c.168);
Nicolaus Copernicus (Poland 1473 - 1543);
Tycho Brahe (Scania, Denmark 1546 - 1601);
Galileo Galilei (Arcetri, Tuscany, Italy 1564 - 1642);
Johannes Kepler (Germany 1571 - 1630);
Giovanni Domenico Cassini (Genoa, Italy 1625 - 1712);
Christiaan Huygens (The Hague, Netherlands 1629 - 1695);
Sir Isaac Newton (England 1643 - 1727);
Sir John Frederick William Herschel (Berkshire, England 1792 - 1871);
Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855 - 1916);
George Ellery Hale (USA 1868 - 1938);
Edwin Powell Hubble (USA 1889 - 1953);
Clyde William Tombaugh (1906 - 1997)
Vera (Cooper) Rubin (USA 1928 -);

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