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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy

“Behold the hands”*…

 

Is gesture a universal language? When lost for words, we point, wave, motion and otherwise use our hands to attempt to indicate meaning. However, much of this form of communication is intuitive and is not generally seen to be, by itself, an effective substitution for speech.

John Bulwer (1606 – 1656), an English doctor and philosopher, attempted to record the vocabulary contained in hand gestures and bodily motions and, in 1644, published Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand alongside a companion text Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, an illustrated collection of hand and finger gestures that were intended for an orator to memorise and perform whilst speaking.

For Bulwer, gesture was the only from of speech that was inherently natural to mankind, and he saw it as a language with expressions as definable as written words…

More of the backstory (and more examples) at “Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand (1644).”

* “Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”   – Montaigne

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As we gesticulate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish discovered the first pulsar— or pulsating radio star– a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation.

The precise periods of pulsars make them very useful tools. Observations of a pulsar in a binary neutron star system were used to  confirm (indirectly) the existence of gravitational radiation. The first extrasolar planets were discovered around a pulsar, PSR B1257+12.  And certain types of pulsars rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.

Schematic rendering of a pulsar

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Written by LW

November 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”*…

 

Many scientists know the pain of meeting a stranger at cocktail party or sitting down at Thanksgiving and getting this question: So, what’s your research about?

Though trying to distill the function of mRNA in gene expression into a few minutes of intelligible chit chat may seem as hard as earning a Ph.D., the ability to communicate complex research to the general public is of the utmost importance.

So to help academics everywhere, American Association for the Advancement of Science launched the annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. Now in it’s ninth year, the contest requires grad students translate their often complex research into a new format, giving them a different perspective on their work and a chance to communicate their findings with the public. It’s also fun…

The full story (replete with videos of victorious performances) at “Jive to the Academic Beat With This Year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ Winners.”

* Richard Feynman

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As we let the spirits move us, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the Roman Catholic Church admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo.  For over 359 years, the Church had excoriated Galileo’s contentions (e.g., that the Earth revolves around the Sun) as anti-scriptural heresy.  In 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been forced by the Roman Inquisition to repent, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  After 13 years of inquiry, Pope John Paul II’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pontiff a “not guilty” finding for Galileo; the Pope himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help correct the record.

Galileo (standing; white collar, dark smock) showing the Doge of Venice (seated) how to use the telescope. From a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini

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“Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics”*…

 

The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.  Because.

(Visit the page of its parent, The OEIS Foundationmovies, posters, and more!)

* Carl Friedrich Gauss

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As we count ’em up, we might send starry birthday greeting to Erasmus Reinhold; he was born on this date in 1511.  A mathematician and astronomer, Reinhold was considered to be the most influential astronomical pedagogue of his generation. Today, he is probably best known for his carefully calculated set of planetary tables– the first– applying Copernican theory, published in 1551.

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“There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling with insight, that does not arise out of what went before”*…

 

Analysis of an ancient codebreaking tablet has revealed that Babylonian astronomers had calculated the movements of Jupiter using an early form of geometric calculus some 1,400 years before we thought the technique was invented by the Europeans.

This means that these ancient Mesopotamian astronomers had not only figured out how to predict Jupiter’s paths more than 1,000 years before the first telescopes existed, but they were using mathematical techniques that would form the foundations of modern calculus as we now know it…

Look more closely at the foundations of modern calculus at “This ancient Babylonian map of Jupiter just changed history as we know it.”  And read the Science article reporting the findings here.

* Isaac Asimov

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As we calculate the differential, we might send radiant birthday greetings to James Alfred Van Allen; he was born on this date in 1914.   A space scientist who learned to miniaturize electronics during World War II, he was instrumental in establishing the field of magnetospheric research in space, and led the scientific community for the inclusion of scientific research instruments on space satellites.  The Van Allen radiation belts were named after him, following their discovery by his Geiger–Müller tube instruments in 1958 on the Explorer 1, Explorer 3, and Pioneer 3 satellites during the International Geophysical Year.

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Written by LW

September 7, 2016 at 1:01 am

“‘Heresy,’ by the way, simply means ‘choice.’ It came to mean ‘thoughtcrime,’ implying it was blasphemy to presume to choose your own belief”*…

 

Frontispiece to Francis van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667)

Largely forgotten today, the 17th-century Flemish alchemist Francis van Helmont influenced and was friends with the likes of Locke, Boyle, and Leibniz.  While imprisoned by the Inquisition, in between torture sessions, he wrote his Alphabet of Nature on the idea of a universal “natural” language.

The full– and fascinating– story at “Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature.”

* Robert M. Price

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As we fumble for fundamentals, we might send apostate birthday greetings to Govaert Wendelen (Latinized Godefridus Wendelinus, or sometimes Vendelinus); he was born on this date in 1580.  A clergyman and astronomer, he was– in conflict with the Church’s teachings at the time– a vigorous proponent of the Copernican theory that the planets orbit around the sun.  Wendelen is regarded as first to formulate a law for the variation of the obliquity of the ecliptic (for which Newton cited him in his Principia).  The crater Vendelinus on the Moon is named for him.

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Written by LW

June 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception”*…

 

If you’re prone to flights of depressive thoughts in the shower (who isn’t?), you’ve perhaps briefly entertained the notion that, since humans are responsible for every environmental catastrophe, maybe the planet would be better off if we all just died. While you might rid yourself of such a bleak thought by making the water scalding and moving on to thinking about something cruel you did in middle school, there is a group of extremist hippies called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, pronounced “vehement”) that actively promotes the idea. Their philosophy is simple: Humans should stop breeding, and allow ourselves to go extinct. As their motto puts it, “Live long and die out.”…

Learn more about VHEMT at “Live Long and Die Out.”

Then, for a very different approach to extinction, consider The Long Now Foundation‘s Revive and Restore Project (of which, to tip your correspondent’s leanings, he is a supporter).

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

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As we sit with a Sense of an Ending, we might send lofty birthday greetings to the author of today’s title quote, Carl Edward Sagan; he was born on this date in 1934. An astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist (his contributions were central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of Venus), he is best remembered as a popularizer of science– via books like The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot, and the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (which he narrated and co-wrote), the most widely-watched series in the history of American public television (seen by at least 500 million people across 60 different countries).

He is also remembered for his contributions to the scientific research of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation.

(Readers can enjoy a loving riff on Cosmos here.)

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Written by LW

November 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The exploring of the Solar System… constitutes the beginning, much more than the end, of history”*…

 

Solar System Interactive,” from Jeroen Gommers, is a simple– and simply beautiful– tool for understanding the relative orbits of the planets (and lest we forsake Pluto, the dwarf planets) the circle the Sun…

In a simplified graphical presentation the planets are seen orbiting the sun at a relatively high speed. The user is encouraged to grab any one of these planets, drag it around the sun manually and experience the orbit periods of the other planets as they are driven along their orbit at relative speeds, uncovering the “interplanetary clockwork.”

Click here to give it a whirl.

* Carl Sagan

As we watch ’em go round, we might send synthetic birthday greetings to Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow; he was born on this date in 1905.  A chemist and physicist, Snow taught at his alma mater, Cambridge, before joining the British Civil Service, where he had a distinguished career as a technical adviser and administrator.  He is probably better remembered these days for his writing (e.g., a biography of Anthony Trollope; the sequence of novels known as Strangers and Brothers).  But he is surely best remembered for his 1959 Rede Lecture, “Two Cultures” (subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution).  Snow argued that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society – the sciences and the humanities – was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had…

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Written by LW

October 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

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