January 15, 2009

International Year of Astronomy.

Though preceded in some places (Berne, Edmonton, Hong Kong, and Stockholm among others), the official opening of the International Year of Astronomy is currently underway in Paris. The year's events and celebrations will coincide the 400th anniversary of the publication of Astronomia nova by Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), in which he described the fundamental laws of planetary motions, and the first astronomical observation through a telescope by Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), changing our understanding of mankind's place in the Universe, rendering space a three-dimensional place rather than a mere canvas adorned with stars.

The main aim of the year's activities is to reignite the sense of wonder for our place in the Universe, and attempt to promote a greater appreciation of astronomy and the impact and contribution it and other fundamental sciences have on all our lives. The organisers, the International Astronomical Union (celebrating its 90th anniversary this year), UNICEF, and others, also aim to bring attention to how light pollution is diminishing the chances of an increasingly urban population engaging in one of humanity's oldest pastimes — one once heavily censured by religious fanatics with disasterous consequences not only for those who dared to gaze at the sky.

As one of the oldest fundamental sciences, astronomy has had a profound impact on human culture, and continues to be one of the most powerful expressions of human intellect. And while a mere century ago we were stuck at the bottom of an ocean of turbulent air, peering at distant worlds, today great telescopes are in Earth orbit observing the heavens in gamma rays, X rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, and radio waves. A hundred years age we were barely aware of our own galaxy. Today we know that the Universe we inhabit is composed of some 100 billion galaxies, of which the Milky Way, or "our galaxy" (as though anyone could possess it), just happens to be one.

Our sun — one of perhaps 400 billion in the galaxy — is just an average-sized, ordinary yellow star near the inner edge of one of the spiral arms, accompanied on its 250 million year journey around the centre of the Milky Way by an entourage of small worlds. Some are planets some are moons, some asteroids, some comets. We humans are one of some 50 billion species that happened to evolve on a fairly small planet that we call Earth, the third from the local star. A hundred years ago we had no means of knowing with certainty whether there were other solar systems in the Universe. Today we have observed more than 200 planets around other stars in our galaxy.

And while we have sent spacecrafts to examine some 70 of the worlds in our system, entering their atmospheres, even landing on the surfaces of a handful of them, much remains to be observed, examined, and discovered. For instance, what roughly 90 percent of our Universe is actually made of; or the peculiar distribution of galaxies (they hang out in packs, rarely alone); or the nature of gamma ray bursts in which entire solar systems are regularly gobbled up; or whether there is intelligent life anywhere else, and what the origin and fate of this Universe is. The most amazing discoveries will likely be ones we can't even possibly anticipate today.

Some of the exceptional events during the year include 100 Hours of Astronomy, aimed at allowing as many people around the world as possible to gaze through a telescope for the first time — much like Galileo did 400 years ago — in a 100-hour, round-the-clock, round-the-world event that will include live webcasts from research observatories, public observing events and other activities. Another is She is an Astronomer, aimed at promoting gender equality in astronomy and science in general. It’s still common in some places to consider women lacking in scientific abilities, to be too emotional to be objective, and not possessing the type of intelligence necessary for science.

Today women populate most of the subdisciplines of science, though they’re still a minority. In astronomy and planetary studies women only recently burst upon the scene, contributing a slew of discoveries and providing a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Their contributions, and those of the sky-gazers, astronomers, scientists, and engineers that preceded them, have replaced the tidy anthropocentric universe of our ancestors with a cold, immense, indifferent universe, in which humans are relegated to relative obscurity. Yet they have also revealed a universe of fascinating magnificence, and intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors ever imagined.

While it may be a question of preference, it must ultimately be better to understand the Universe as it really is, than inhabit an imaginary space ordered as we wish it to be. So, take some time this year to examine the sky above you, participate in events (Canadian events here), consider the place we inhabit, and get to know your Universe.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous20/1/09

    Certainly a lot to 'look' forward too... And amazing how little we saw and knew when we look back.



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