lots of space-homelots of space-home
The United Nations dedicates each year to a particular social, artistic or scientific cause. Some of their choices prove to be more consequential than others. For example, last year’s attempt to inspire the world with the Year of the Potato quite possibly passed some Resident readers by. However in 2009 (and no disrespect to “The World’s Number One Non-Grain Food Commodity”), it’s the turn of something a touch more cosmic.
It was exactly 400 years ago that a Tuscan scientist, Galileo Galilei, became the first person to use a telescope to study the heavens, changing forever man’s understanding of the Earth’s relationship to its stellar neighbours. Two thousand and nine is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), a combined effort by the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union to “help citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe.”
Before Galileo, various Dutch, German and British scientists claimed to have invented the telescope, but the instrument’s earlier use was confined to marine navigation and land surveillance. Galileo refined these prototypes by aligning two specially ground lenses at exactly the right distance from each other to produce a magnifying power one thousand times that of the naked eye; sufficient to observe the heavens in the kind of detail never before seen.
His first observation was that, contrary to what was previously thought, the Moon did not have a completely smooth surface but instead had craters, canyons and mountains. Galileo’s drawings caused much excitement since they resembled scenes from Earth, albeit in a slightly other-worldly way, sparking off the first serious debate about the possibility of life on other planets.
The second (and undoubtedly the more earth-shattering revelation) was that Jupiter’s four moons rotated around the planet in a defined and predictable orbit; a discovery infinitely more profound than it might seem. It led Galileo to reject Aristotle’s centuries-held belief that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies revolved around it.
If his first discovery of the Moon’s craters generated excitement, then the very opposite was true of this subsequent revelation. Explaining why, Danish astronomer Lars Christiensen, head of communications at the European Hubble Telescope Centre in Germany and one of the principal architects of the Year of Astronomy, told Resident, “All biblical teachings up to that point placed mankind and planet Earth at the centre of God’s creation. Galileo’s evidence, which validated an earlier unproven theory by the Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus, was seen by the church establishment as deeply heretical. Like many science pioneers, Galileo suffered much condemnation for his beliefs. He was a very courageous man.” It took a few years, but gradually other scientists around the world publicly supported Galileo’s case and eventually his proposition became the accepted understanding of how star systems relate to each other.
The IYA is a worldwide initiative with 146 nations taking part, and within Spain’s contribution Catalunya is certainly playing its part. The Parc Astronomic Montsec is situated 1,500 metres above sea level, near Ager in the province of Lleida; with its low levels of light pollution and consistently good atmospheric conditions, it is one of the best places in Spain for observing the skies.
“With our removable dome, our planetarium converts to an astronomical observatory at the flick of a switch, one of the first of its kind in the world,” the centre’s director, Salvador Ribas, told Resident. “As a part of the year’s celebrations we’ll be hosting a beginners’ astronomy course from July 3rd to 5th [in Catalan and Spanish]. And starting in May, our open days in the planetarium will be in English and French.”
Another IYA event is a national schools project, where children (including those in the Costa Brava region) are being given the task of calculating the radius of the Earth. Of course, it’s been done before (by the Greeks in 240 BCE, for starters), but the distance is marginally different depending on where it is measured. Using nothing other than old-fashioned sundials and basic trigonometry, 100 science classes across the country are taking readings of sun shadows cast in their particular areas. The measurements will be centrally compiled and the result will be announced over a simultaneous schools webcast, with prizes for various categories of achievement, as well as extra events based on galactic exploration and extra-terrestrial life.
One of the cornerstone projects of the IYA is a four-day event (April 2nd to 5th, a favourable period for star-gazing) when municipalities all over the world, from the largest city to the smallest village, are invited to take part in what is called ‘100 Hours of Astronomy’. While the title of the project could have been a touch more imaginative, the idea behind it is inspired. The aim is to get local authorities to close off roads, turn off street lighting and encourage ordinary people across the world to simultaneously gaze in wonder at the heavens. Local expertise will be on hand with telescopes and advice to help aspiring astronomers distinguish the gas clouds of Saturn from the rings around Uranus.
Aside from the project’s recreational and educational objectives, ‘100 Hours of Astronomy’ has a deeper and more philosophical aim; as Lars Christiensen so lyrically put it, it wants “to promote world peace through a common understanding of the great universe that we all share.” A lofty ideal perhaps, but some might say they’re in short supply on our little planet just at the moment.
www.parcastronomic.cat—The observatory and planetarium near Ager in Lleida province
www.astronomy2009.org—For information on events during the International Year of Astronomy (globally)
www.astronomia2009.es—For details of all Year of Astronomy events taking place in Spain and regional ‘100 Hours of Astronomy’ activities at the start of this month.
This article was first published in the magazine Resident, Nº 44, April 2009