Posts Tagged 'Astronomy'

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].


Sunrise in Newgrange on winter solstice [image from

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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].

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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.


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.


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].


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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A New Window on the World

The motto of the Pythagoreans was “All is Number” and Pythagoras may have been the first person to imagine that the workings of the world might be understood in mathematical terms. This idea has now brought us to the point where, at a fundamental level, mathematics is the primary means of describing the physical world. Galileo put it this way: the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics [TM102, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Visualization of gravitational waves. Image credit MPI/Gravitational Physics/ITP Frankfurt/ZI Berlin.

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Kepler’s Magnificent Mysterium Cosmographicum


Johannes Kepler’s amazing book, Mysterium Cosmographicum, was published in 1596. Kepler’s central idea was that the distance relationships between the six planets (only six were known at that time) could be represented by six spheres separated by the five Platonic solids. For each of these regular polyhedra, there is an inner and an outer sphere. The inner sphere is tangent to the centre of each face and the outer sphere contains all the vertices of the polyhedron.


Figure generated using Mathematica Demonstration [2].

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