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Act like an astronomer. November 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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My brother has a good friend who’s a celestial physicist. I always thought this had to be the best job title in the world, to have “celestial” as an official part of your job description. Today, however, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the potential of those who studied the heavens to come up with descriptions of their endeavors that were so grandiose as to be worthy of The Onion.

I saw a headline on Yahoo’s homepage that astronomers have used photos from the Hubble Space Telescope to reconstruct what the Milky Way must have looked like 11 billion years ago, when it was first forming, versus what it looks like now. This is no mean achievement, and as our friend Ben is a fan of all the natural sciences, I headed to the article to check things out.

I was rather startled to see that, at its putative birth, the Milky Way looked like a beautiful blue, star-studded cloud, but the (presumably actual) photo of the real-time Milky Way looked like a dead crocodile that had been covered loosely by a sheet of Bubble Wrap with slightly rumpled edges. Somehow, it had not occurred to me to think of our beloved galaxy in this manner before seeing the photo.

It was then, while still reeling from the Bubble Wrap experience, that I read that the data used to reconstruct our nascent galaxy came from the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey. Yowie kazowie!

It struck me at once that the rest of us were really missing out here. Why call everything we do such humdrum names when we could be calling them something that would stupefy even the likes of Sir Isaac Newton? Let’s say, for example, that we decide to have a bowl of cereal with milk and a sliced banana for breakfast. Sound banal? Not when you call it the Cosmic Multi-Continental Tropical/Temperate Agronomic Matitudinal Bovine (ga)Lactic-Musa Interface! (Matitudinal, morning, bovine, cow, lactic, milk, musa, banana, just in case you’re wondering.)

Just think how our lives would be transformed if we just thought in astronomical terms. Even as I write, our friend Ben is hard at work trying to think how to make “impoverished freelance writer, blogger, and editor” sound a little more impressive. Great Near-destitute Deep Extragalactic Original Verbose Celestial Body, anyone?

A star, a star (and a couple of planets) December 10, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about the Star of Bethlehem, which is beloved worldwide, but is especially beloved around here, so close to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the “Christmas City” whose Moravian stars shine on trees and doorsteps throughout the region. For millennia, astronomers have wondered what the brilliant star that led the Magi to the Holy Land that first Christmas might have been. Now, thanks to technological advances and the miracle of computers, they think they’ve come up with a pretty convincing answer.

The frontrunner for the Star of Bethlehem is not a single star but a star and two planets that came together in a truly stellar conjunction in the night sky around 2 B.C., reaching their brightest point in June of that year. The star, unusually bright anyway, is Regulus, the planets Venus and Jupiter. This theory has been in vogue since Griffith Observatory astronomer John Mosley first proposed it over 20 years ago. But it made headlines again this week when Australian astronomer Dave Reneke ran an astronomical sky-mapping software program back over 2,000 years and was able to determine that this conjunction was at its brightest on June 17th, 2 B.C.

You can read a summary of “the search for the Star” and learn more about Mosley’s and Reneke’s findings in an article on www.msnbc.msn.com called “Christmas in June? Stars say maybe.” Incidentally, Jupiter and Venus made headlines again last week when they appeared together in conjunction with the crescent moon. (You may have noticed two very bright “stars” in the sky for the past month or so, looking sort of like Orion’s belt without the buckle. Those “stars” are in fact Jupiter and Venus.)

Seeing Jupiter and Venus shining bright made me wonder how it was that planets could outshine stars, anyway. Well, the answer to that one’s easy: Like our moon, they’re simply reflecting the sun’s light. Though we’re accustomed to seeing the view of the Earth from space that shows a blue-green ball, if we saw Earth from farther off, it too would glow like a star. Leonardo da Vinci was the first to realize this, and he even coined a name for it, “earthshine.”

Thinking about Jupiter and Venus made me wonder about something else, too. All the planets in our solar system are named for ancient Greek and Roman gods: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, even poor Pluto. But if there was a Greek or Roman god named “Earth,” that’s news to me. So how did Earth get its name?

In fact, “earth” comes from Old English “eorthe” and “ertha” and German “erde,” and means exactly what it means to us today: the ground. We’ve been using the word “Earth” to describe our planet for a thousand years. But what did the ancient Greeks and Romans call it?

Maybe a name you’re probably familiar with, Gaia. In Greek mythology, Gaia was a goddess who presided over the Earth. She was also the wife of Uranus. Today, the “Gaia Hypothesis” posits that the Earth is a single giant organism with a cosmic awareness, and people who appreciate the idea of planetary unity often refer to Earth as Gaia. (Apparently, quite a few of them are naming their daughters Gaia, too—who knew? Or at least, when I Googled the origin and meaning of Gaia, what came up first were a bunch of baby-name sites.) 

So, okay, how’d we get from a goddess to the ground—back down to earth, so to speak? Well, if you go back far enough, practically all of us started out calling ourselves something that meant “the people” in our tribal language. Along the same lines, I guess maybe we figured that “the ground” was an appropriate name for the planet we lived on. Not very romantic, but certainly practical.

Let’s turn our attention back to the stars, I mean, planets. If you’ve missed the dynamic duo of Venus and Jupiter, cast your eyes heavenward! It’s truly a beautiful sight.