Posts Tagged 'Astronomy'

Johannes Kepler and the Song of the Earth

Johannes Kepler, German mathematician and astronomer, sought to explain the solar system in terms of divine harmony. His goal was to find a system of the world that was mathematically correct and harmonically pleasing. His methodology was scientific in that his hypotheses were inspired by and confirmed by observations. However, his theological training and astrological interests influenced his thinking [TM150, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Solar-System-Inner

The six planets known to Kepler [Image NASA].

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Galileo’s Book of Nature

In 1971, astronaut David Scott, standing on the Moon, dropped a hammer and a feather and found that both reached the surface at the same time. This popular experiment during the Apollo 15 mission was a dramatic demonstration of a prediction made by Galileo three centuries earlier. Galileo was born in Pisa on 15 February 1564, just 454 years ago today [TM133 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Apollo15-HammerFeather

Image: NASA

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Darker Mornings, Brighter Evenings

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. We might expect that the latest sunrise and earliest sunset also occur today. In fact, the earliest sunset, the darkest day of the year, was on 13 December, over a week ago, and the latest sunrise is still more than a week away. This curious behaviour is due to the unsteady path of the Earth around the Sun. Our clocks, which run regularly at what is called mean time, move in and out of synchronization with solar time [TM129 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Sunrise-Newgrange

Sunrise in Newgrange on winter solstice [image from http://www.boynevalleytours.com/

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The Star of Bethlehem … or was it a Planet?

People of old were more aware than we are of the night sky and took a keen interest in unusual happenings above them. The configuration of the stars was believed to be linked to human affairs and many astronomical phenomena were interpreted as signs of good or evil in the offing. The Three Wise Men or Magi were astrologers, experts in celestial matters, and would have drawn inferences from what they observed in the sky [TM128 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

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Slingshot Orbit to Asteroid Bennu

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft have now left the solar system and will continue into deep space. How did we manage to send them so far? The Voyager spacecraft used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Gravity assist manoeuvres, known as slingshots, are essential for interplanetary missions. They were first used in the Soviet Luna-3 mission in 1959, when images of the far side of the Moon were obtained. Space mission planners use them because they require no fuel and the gain in speed dramatically shortens the time of missions to the outer planets.

OSIRIS-REx

Artist’s impression of OSIRIS-REx orbiting Bennu [Photo Credit: NASA]

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Pedro Nunes and Solar Retrogression

In northern latitudes we are used to the Sun rising in the East, following a smooth and even course through the southern sky and setting in the West. The idea that the compass bearing of the Sun might reverse seems fanciful. But in 1537 Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes showed that the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sun dial can move backwards.

PedroNunes-Postage-Stamp

Pedro Nunes (1502–1578). Portuguese postage stamp issued in 1978.

Nunes’ prediction was counter-intuitive. It came long before Newton, Galileo and Kepler, and Copernicus’ heliocentric theory had not yet been published. The retrogression was a remarkable example of the power of mathematics to predict physical behaviour.

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Quadrivium: The Noble Fourfold Way

According to Plato, a core of mathematical knowledge – later known as the Quadrivium – was essential for an understanding of the Universe. The curriculum was outlined in Plato’s Republic. The name Quadrivium means four ways, but this term was not used until the time of Boethius in the 6th century AD [see TM119 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Quadrivium-Book

Image from here.

It is said that an inscription over the entrance to Plato’s Academy read “Let None But Geometers Enter Here”. This indicated that the Quadrivium was a prerequisite for the study of philosophy in ancient Greece.

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