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Friday, July 15. 2011
Of all the astronomical discoveries over the years, which was the most profound? Which discovery, upon further examination, opened more new doors to philosophy, deep thought and science than any other?
Certainly the discovery that the Earth wasn't at the center of the solar system would be most people's pick, since it only relegated a couple thousand years of religious belief to the dust bin of history.
But when you think about it, that particular discovery didn't really alter our view of the cosmos; it was more just a matter of a small physical realignment in the immediate neighborhood. It certainly had religious repercussions, and certainly made calculating planetary orbits easier, but not much else. Switch the Sun and the Earth around and we still have no further idea what all those little twinkling lights up there are.
But in 1863, an Italian astronomer named Angelo Secchi invented the heliospectrograph, which breaks a star's light into its spectral bands. He eventually charted the light from almost 4,000 stars.
At one point, he turned it on the Sun and compared its chart to the others. And what a stunning moment.
Our Sun is a star.
To me, if there was one fulcrum point upon which our entire understanding of the cosmos turned, that was it.
Our Sun is a star.
I'm currently halfway through a terrific series on our solar system called Wonders of the Solar System. It's a 3-disc set; I got mine from Netflix. The following video is from the episode 'Empire of the Sun'. That's the only segue from above; the actual clip is specifically about the Earth. Very specifically, as you'll see.
Apart from the usual breathtaking photography and computer graphics, what makes it particularly enjoyable is the host, Dr. Brian Cox. Like the great science hosts of yore (Carl Sagan, James Burke, et al), Cox doesn't get bogged down in technical talk and he uses easy-to-understand examples of the physics he's describing. He also carries across that unabashed 'wonderment and awe' that Sagan used to wear on his sleeve. Nothin' wrong with that.
On the other hand, I'm no slouch with this cosmos stuff, m'self. Until I see otherwise, I believe my Life On Other Worlds: By The Numbers is the definitive work arguing against there being intelligent life on other worlds.
Which is why the following clip interested me. It's yet another link in the chain of events that are extremely unlikely to happen to the average planet.
Does the average planet have... a spinning molten iron core?
The full 1-hour episode is here.
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Dr. Cox does a great job and I really enjoy his series. He has a very common touch and you can see the enjoyment he gets out of explaining it in plain language.
The whole history of heliocentrism vs geocentrism is very interesting. As early as the 200 BC (or thereabouts if I remember right) Greek philosophers and astronomers believed in heliocentrism and proposed models in which Earth, Moon and STARS moved around the Sun. Back and forth over the intervening years.
With respect to astronomical discoveries, I'd have to go with the ability to navigate using the sun and stars to orient travel from Point A to Point B.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Then discovery that a 'black hole' actually exists?????
Of all the astronomical discoveries over the years, which was the most profound?
Bessel's successful measurement in 1838 of the distance to the star 61 Cygni might not have been the most profound but it sure was important because, as the first measurement of the distance to any star other than the Sun, it offered the first hint as to how large the size of the universe might turn out to be. Until then, our "horizon" was limited to the outer reaches of our puny solar system.
AC - You're right, that might not hit one of the top spots, but certainly in the top ten. Before Bessel put the ruler to it, it would have been nothing but sheer guesswork. Hell, even when they decided that it must be 'vast' because some stars appeared much further away than others, that blew apart the second someone asked, "What if they're just smaller?" They really didn't have a friggin' clue. Bessel's numbers must have been a real jaw-dropper.
Another contender: Who first discovered that we weren't the only galaxy in the universe? Speaking of vastness, that discovery must have been quite the little shocker.
Wasn't that Hubble, in the late 19th / early 20th C.?
That was the subject of the famous Shapley-Curtis debate in 1920, i.e., whether the so-called spiral nebulae were part of the Milky Way itself or else independent galaxies of stars of their own.
Gar, you lost me. On the other hand, you are Canadian, so you've got the advantage on me in the confusion department.
Tom - I didn't elaborate, but there have been a handful of people who have claimed the Sun was a star over the years, all the way to some dude in something like 435 AD, but ol' Angelo was the one who proved it. The guy a hundred years before him was, no shit, burned at the stake for not recanting his crazy notion. Good times, good times.
Doc M, while some of his science programs may well border on the entertaining, many folk in the UK do NOT think very highly of Cox e.g. -
Thanks, that was quite interesting. The commenters also did a good job, some refuting what was said but using logic to support their argument. I suppose it should go without saying that if I'd heard the slightest dribble of AGW come out of his mouth in the episodes I've seen so far, I never would have posted this. But, so far, he hasn't even mentioned it. On the other hand, it's a show on the solar system, not Earth, so if suddenly he did mention it, it would seem out of place.
But as far as 'arrogant" goes, that's one of those words that only sounds bad -- but isn't, really. As they say, if you can do it, it ain't braggin'. And I figure some arrogance is a natural state for people like doctors and lawyers and scientists who know all that 'extra' stuff that we mere mortals don't.
Sorry, but James Burke's Connections is awful tough to beat. How he can take a lump of coal and end up with whatever is quite a leap of faith. The one where he ended the show with the shuttle launching was classic.
Dr. Cox is too 'metro-sexual' tonal for my tastes - even Morgan Freeman's 'Through the Wormhole' is a touch more attention grabbing.
As for me, the more recent finds of extra-solar system planets obiting other suns. When Sagen eluded to the possibility in Cosmos, it was heavily lauded. But, we seem to be finding more of them, with regularity.
That, and the spectacular pics coming from Saturn's moons - the volcanic eruptions are priceless.
I'll happily agree with you about James Burke. I have the whole 'Day The Universe Changed' here.
The Babylonians were measuring annual cycles of celestial movement within fractions of a minute accuracy, or more. There is evidence they also believed in the heliocentric model.
The division of time into 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds comes straight from the hexi-based math of the Babylonians and Sumerians, as does the division of the circle and globe into 360 degrees.