Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’
Nearly 40 years ago, a Hungarian architecture professor, Emo Rubik, created a puzzle to use with his design students- a puzzle with 43 quintillion possible combinations and one solution. Within five years, it had been played by over 20% of the world’s population, and has so far sold over 350 million units (not counting “unofficial” versions).
As we twist and turn, we might spare a thought for Ulugh Beg; he died on this date in 1449. Probably Mongolia’s greatest scientist, Beg was a Timurid ruler and sultan, a mathematician, and the greatest astronomer of his time. In his observatory in at Samarkand he discovered a number of errors in the computations of the 2nd-century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy, whose figures were still being used; his star map (of 994 stars) was the first since Hipparchus’.
One could be forgiven for mistaking these structures for the set of science fiction epic staged on a planet light years from Earth. In fact, they are centuries-old scientific instruments, designed and used in Jantar Mantar (Jaipur), India, to explore the heavens. They were built by a great Maharaja in the early decades of the 18th century and they have been in continuous use since.
Read the full story and see more remarkable photos of the observatory at Kuriositas.
As we raise our eyes, we might send celestial birthday greetings to Mary Watson Whitney; she was born on this date in 1847. A protege of astronomer Maria Mitchell, Whitney followed her mentor as professor of astronomy at Vassar and as head of the Observatory there. A champion of scientific education for women, Whitney built Vassar’s astronomy program into one of the nation’s finest.
As a service to bewildered younger viewers of the recent Grammy Awards show, the History Channel and Twitter combined (under the auspices of Funny or Die) to produce the helpful documentary, Who is Paul McCartney?
As we say, “oh yeah (yeah yeah),” we might send heavenly birthday greetings to Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; he was born on this date in 1473. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres; published just before his death in 1543), with its heliocentric account of the solar system, is often regarded as the beginning both of modern astronomy and of the scientific revolution.
Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.
From Foreign Policy, “Even Better Than the Real Thing: The 10 best fake Twitter feeds on global politics.”
The bizarro-world Dmitry Medvedev (in Russian)
“Governors need to have more children so that the country will have more successful young entrepreneurs.”
As we grab our laughs in 140-character hunks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that news flew (by radio and cable) around the world that astronomer Clyde Tombaugh had discovered (what was then considered) the ninth planet in our solar system. The Lowell Observatory, Tombaugh’s site, had naming rights– and received over 1,000 recommendations. They finally settled on “Pluto,” the suggestion of an eleven-year-old school girl from Oxford, Venetia Burney, who proposed the name of the god of the underworld (as appropriate to such a cold, dark place) to her grandfather, Falconer Madan, Librarian at the Bodleian Library; Madan passed it on to Professor Herbert Hall Turner, who in turn cabled it to colleagues in the U.S. It was formally adopted on March 24… each member of the Observatory staff voted on a list of three finalists: Minerva (which was already the name of an asteroid), Cronus (which suffered for being the nominee of the unpopular astronomer Thomas Jefferson Jackson See), and Pluto. Pluto received every vote.
Clyde Tombaugh (source)
Venetia Burney (source)
photo: Minden/plainpicture (source)
Many biologists have long believed that, before the point 2.9 billion years ago that the three domains of life emerged, there was no speciation– genetic material of all sorts was freely exchanged in every direction. In this “pre-Darwinian” period, which lasted hundreds of millions of years, there was no “evolution”; rather, cells struggling to survive on their own exchanged useful parts with each other without competition.
Now, as a function of the effort to identify the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA)– the organism from which all life on earth must be descended– scientists have begun to suspect that all of those cells trading parts were part of a single entity: an enormous mega-organism that filled the planet’s oceans before splitting into three and giving birth to the ancestors of all living things on Earth today.
It was around 2.9 billion years ago that LUCA split into the three domains of life: the single-celled bacteria and archaea, and the more complex eukaryotes that gave rise to animals and plants (see timeline). It’s hard to know what happened before the split. Hardly any fossil evidence remains from this time, and any genes that date that far back are likely to have mutated beyond recognition.
That isn’t an insuperable obstacle to painting LUCA’s portrait, says Gustavo Caetano-Anollés of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While the sequence of genes changes quickly, the three-dimensional structure of the proteins they code for is more resistant to the test of time. So if all organisms today make a protein with the same overall structure, he says, it’s a good bet that the structure was present in LUCA. He calls such structures living fossils, and points out that since the function of a protein is highly dependent on its structure, they could tell us what LUCA could do…
LUCA had a rich metabolism that used different food sources, and it had internal organelles. So far, so familiar. But its genetics are a different story altogether. For starters, LUCA may not have used DNA. Poole has studied the history of enzymes called ribonucleotide reductases, which create the building blocks of DNA, and found no evidence that LUCA had them (BMC Evolutionary Biology, DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-383). Instead, it may have used RNA: many biologists think RNA came first because it can store information and control chemical reactions.
The crucial point is that LUCA was a “progenote“, with poor control over the proteins that it made, says Massimo Di Giulio of the Institute of Genetics and Biophysics in Naples, Italy. Progenotes can make proteins using genes as a template, but the process is so error-prone that the proteins can be quite unlike what the gene specified. Both Di Giulio and Caetano-Anollés have found evidence that systems that make protein synthesis accurate appear long after LUCA. “LUCA was a clumsy guy trying to solve the complexities of living on primitive Earth,” says Caetano-Anollés…
Only when some of the cells evolved ways of producing everything they needed could the mega-organism have broken apart. We don’t know why this happened, but it appears to have coincided with the appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere, around 2.9 billion years ago. Regardless of the cause, life on Earth was never the same again.
As we rethink the roots of our family trees, we might spare a thought for the Spanish-Arab philosopher, physician, and astronomer known in the West as Averroes; he died on this date in 1198. The most famous of medieval Muslim philosophers, he was an authority on Aristotle, whose thought he defended against the charge that it was an affront to Islam. His Kulliyat fi ab tb (Generalities on Medicine) attempted to codify logically all existing medical knowledge– from organ anatomy and hygiene to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases– and spread widely via translations. In astronomy, he argued for strictly concentric orbital organization, believing that the motion of the planets had to be around a physical center (the Earth)– thus rejecting Ptolemy’s system of epicycles.
Two out of three ain’t bad.