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Posts Tagged ‘solar system

“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…



Written by LW

October 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The solar system is off center and consequently man is too”*…


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On a dry lake bed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe…

* Harlow Shapley, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars


As we reach for the stars, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that NASA launched the space shuttle Discovery, marking America’s resumption of manned space flight following the 1986 Challenger disaster.  It was the first of Discovery‘s two “Return To Flight” assignments; it flew the “twin” missions in 2005 and 2006 that followed the Columbia disaster in 2003.



Written by LW

September 29, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The Cosmos extends, for all practical purposes, forever”*…


From designer Josh Worth, “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system”– scroll away!

* Carl Sagan


As we ponder Pluto’s planethood, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the Soviet space program stunned the world, as it had with the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin), when cosmonaut Alexey Leonov performed the first spacewalk (and the first EVA) from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft;  Leonov was outside his spacecraft for 12 minutes.

Leonov outside his spacecraft



Written by LW

March 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

Dumb and dumber…


Readers will recall a recent lament that a plurality of Americans disbelieve evolution, believing instead that God created humans in materially their present form about 10,000 years ago.

It is perhaps some consolation that, as Reuters reports, we have some company:

Does the sun revolve around the Earth? One in every three Russians thinks so, a spokeswoman for state pollster VsTIOM said on Friday.

In a survey released this week, 32 percent of Russians believed the Earth was the center of the Solar system; 55 percent that all radioactivity is man-made; and 29 percent that the first humans lived when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

“It’s really quite amazing,” spokeswoman Olga Kamenchuk said of the survey that polled 1,600 people across Russia’s regions in January, with a 3.4-percent margin of error.

As we pause, dumbstruck, we might wish a grateful Happy Birthday to Galileo Galilei, the physicist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who, with Francis Bacon, pioneered the Scientific Method; he was born on this date in 1564.  It was Galileo’s observations that gave conclusive support to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system.

Leoni’s portrait of Galileo (source)


Pictures worth a million words…

In his great opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium published shortly before his death in 1543, Copernicus takes 405 pages of words, numbers and equations to explain his heliocentric theory. But it is the diagram that he draws at the beginning of the book that captures in a simple image his revolutionary new idea: it is the Sun that is at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth.

A diagram has the power to create a whole new visual language to navigate a scientific idea. Isaac Newton’s optics diagrams [Opticks, 1704] for example transform light into geometry. By representing light as lines, Newton is able to use mathematics and geometry to predict the behaviour of light. It was a revolutionary idea.

Mathematicians had been struggling with the idea of the square root of minus one. There seemed to be no number on the number line whose square was negative. Experts knew that if such a number existed it would transform their subject. But where was this number? It was a picture drawn independently by three mathematicians at the beginning of the 19th Century that brought these numbers to life. Called the Argand diagram after one of its creators, this picture… was a potent tool in manipulating these new numbers [Imaginary Numbers] since the geometry of the diagram reflected the underlying algebra of the numbers they depicted.

Although better known for her contributions to nursing, Florence Nightingale’s greatest achievements were mathematical. She was the first to use the idea of a pie chart to represent data.  Nightingale’s diagrams were designed to highlight deaths in the Crimea. She had discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She wanted to persuade government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals. She realised though that just looking at the numbers was unlikely to impress ministers. But once those numbers were translated into a picture – her “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East” – the message could not be ignored.

Read more (and find links to enlarged versions of the images above) at BBC.com, in “Diagrams that Changed the World,” a teaser for new BBC TV series, Marcus du Sautoy’s six-part The Beauty of Diagrams (on air now, and available via iPlayer to readers in the U.K… and readers with VPNs that can terminate in the U.K.)

As we marvel at the power of pictures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that eight planets in our Solar System lined up from West to East– beginning with Pluto, followed by Mercury, Mars, Venus, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and Jupiter, with a crescent moon alongside– in a rare alignment visible from Earth.  Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn were visible to the naked eye; the small blue dots that are Uranus and Neptune, with binoculars.  Pluto was visible only by telescope (but has subsequently been demoted from “planet” anyway…). The planets also aligned in May 2000, but too close to the sun to be visible from Earth.

Readers who missed it have a long wait for the reprise: it will be at least another 100 years before so many planets will be so close and so visible.


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