Published: July 5, 2017 By ,

Over 400 years ago the sky was as beautiful as it is today, but was very mysterious. To most people everywhere the stars were just tiny little lights, but the people’s imaginations and the patterns of some groups of stars led them to create stories about what they meant and how they got there.

Now people’s imaginations are boundless so the stories became more and more complex, and the meanings built into these stories were seen to be more and more important to the people’s day to day lives. Eventually some people found ways to use those stories to attempt to predict the future, and then to control others by convincing them that they alone had the power to interpret those predictions. Those in power spent much time determining more patterns - patterns of phenomena like the phase of the moon, what groupings of stars were visible at different times of the year. Some taught that the stars were the cause of the seasons and other activities here, and astrology was born. But other things like the sudden darkening of the sun and the strange coloration of the moon were apparently too random and so gods were imagined that had the power to do these very incredible things. Sometimes, when those in charge of predictions didn’t see something coming they were punished - usually by death - for having missed these phenomena that now seemed to foretell important events here on earth.

The great Egyptian thinker, Ptolemy, wrote down his ideas of how the objects in the sky were arranged and how they moved. He put the Earth at the center of the everything and ALL other objects rotated about it. His ideas seemed to be good at making the predictions so his writings were accepted by the powerful and were made “sacred”. Once some ideas become sacred other ideas become entrenched as well, such as that the Moon was a “perfect”, smooth sphere. Some other things still happened that were not predicted at all, like the appearance of comets, and the occasional meteor shower and we decided that those were warnings of usually terrible things like the coming of wars or pestilence so there was still lots of mystery left.

But about 500 years ago a few people began to use mathematics and geometry to improve the predictions. To make the predictions better they began to change their ideas of how the sun, moon, stars, and other stuff were arranged in the sky; in effect saying that Ptolemy was wrong. But changing these sacred ideas was dangerous as those in power liked the status-quo and didn’t want change.

Then in 1609, a man named Galileo Galilei did something remarkable. He was already a “trouble maker” that was upsetting standard ideas about the world. But one night he took his hand-made telescope and looked at the moon. What he saw in the magnified image astonished him - the Moon had mountains and plains just like the Earth does! It wasn’t a perfect, smooth sphere at all! Then he looked at the Jupiter and noticed a string of very small lights that seemed to be in a straight line through the planet, and drew a picture of what he saw. The next night he looked at Jupiter again. The lights had moved! They were still in a straight line but they were at different places on that line. Several nights of observations proved to Galileo that there were objects that rotated around Jupiter. But how could that be since Ptolemy said that everything rotated about the Earth - two strikes against the status quo. Then he looked at Saturn and saw “handles” on either side. No perfect sphere there either.

Galileo had just proven that Ptolemy and the “authorities” had it wrong, but it would take decades, even centuries for a new structure of the universe to be accepted.

Want to hear more? Come to the Adult Seminar at the Livery on July 13th at 6:00 and we’ll tell you more.

Heavenly Outlook

When looking into the night sky, it can sometimes be difficult to find the particular star or planet that you are looking for. It can often be helpful to base your directions off of other, more recognizable, objects. One way to do this is to form triangles of well-known objects. For example, tonight a small triangle will be formed including the Moon, Saturn, and Antares (the heart of Scorpio. As we know, Scorpio will be rising over the Lone Cone after dusk, so looking south you should be able to see the trio. The moon will be on top with Saturn to the lower left and Antares to the lower right. This triangle doesn’t compare to the giant “Summer Triangle” though. Looking easterly not too far from the horizon, the three brightest stars in the area will be binding this shape. Starting at Cygnus’  tail (the big cross making Cygnus the Swan) then going to the upper right, and then to the lower right, you should trace through the three bright stars of Deneb, Vega, and then Altair. Lastly, towards the end of the month, you should be able to see another small triangle involving the moon, Jupiter, and Spica. On the 28th of June, the three objects will be within the constellation Virgo the Maiden. Virgo looks like a small parallelogram with two legs and arms sticking out. The brightest star is named Spica and it will be to the left of the moon and Jupiter concluding the triangle. See the picture below.

The small triangle inside of Virgo. Photo from Stellarium.