Astronomers Have Digitized 94,000 Photographic Plates of the Night sky, Going Back 129 Years

Since the early days of the internet, and even computers more generally, there has been a push to collect all of the world’s information, built up over thousands of years, into a digital form so it can at least theoretically latest indefinitely. It also makes that information much more accessible to people interested in it. That was the motto of the original Google search engine, and specialists in various historical fields have been making slow but steady progress in doing just that over the past few decades. Now astronomy has gained one of its largest hauls of historical data as the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg has digitized 40,000 of its historical astronomical plates, along with 54,090 plates from other sources.

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Betelgeuse and Antares Have Been Observed for Over 2,000 Years. Astronomers can use This to Figure out how old They are

Stars don’t usually evolve fast enough for humans to notice them change within one lifetime. Even a hundred lifetimes won’t do – astronomical processes are just too slow. But not always. There are some phases of stellar evolution that happen quickly, and when they do, they can be tracked. A new paper posted to ArXiv last week uses astronomical observations found in ancient Roman texts, medieval astronomical logs, and manuscripts from China’s Han Dynasty to trace the recent evolution of several bright stars, including red supergiant Antares, and Betelgeuse: one of the most dynamic stars in our sky. With observations from across the historical record, the paper suggests that Betelgeuse may have just recently passed through the ‘Hertzsprung gap,’ the transitional phase between a main sequence star and its current classification as a red supergiant.

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‘The Clocks are Telling Lies:’ A New Book from Universe Today Writer Scott Alan Johnston

Scott Alan Johnston (that’s me!) joined the Universe Today team just over a year ago. Since then, I’ve written over 50 space news stories for the website – time flies when you’re having fun! But when I’m not writing articles here on Universe Today, I’m a historian of science, and I recently released a new book about the history of timekeeping.

Have you ever wondered why we tell time the way we do? Well, history buffs, come along for a journey:

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An 1874 Citizen Science Project Studying the Aurora Borealis Helped Inspire Time Zones

For millennia, humans have gazed at the northern lights with wonder, pondering their nature and source. Even today, these once mysterious phenomena still evoke awe, though we understand them a little better now. Still, most of our knowledge about the northern lights has come recently, in the last century or two. Astronomers and meteorologists of the 1800s worked for years to understand the aurora, wondering if they were a feature of Earth’s atmospheric weather, of outer space, or, perhaps, something that straddled the boundary in-between. This centuries-old attempt to understand the northern lights was an immense, international-scale project, and, through fortunate happenstance, it even helped inspire one of the underlying foundations of modern society – time zones.

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A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names

Image of the night sky taken at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are visible in the night sky. Credit: ESO, Y. Beletsky

The Magellanic Clouds are a pair of dwarf galaxies that are bound to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is slowly consuming them in Borg-like fashion, starting with the gas halo that surrounds both Clouds. They’re visible in the southern sky, and for centuries people have gazed up at them. They’re named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in our current times.

But they weren’t always called that.

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Christie’s to Auction off 1st Edition Works by Newton, Galileo

Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.

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It’s too bad that they missed Black Friday, but you’ll at least be able to get a few gifts for that astronomy enthusiast friend of yours for Christmas (or even for yourself!). The auction house Christie’s will be putting on the block 160 pieces from Edward Tufte’s rare book collection December 2nd in New York City.

Among the works are original 1st edition copies of such books as Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704), and Galileo Galilee’s Sidereus nuncius (1610) which is better known in English as The Starry Messenger. Galileo famously reported some of his early telescopic observations in this book, discovering the moons of Jupiter and craters and mountains on the Moon. There will also be a copy of René Descartes’ Principia philosophiae (1644) and various works by other famous astronomers, philosophers and scientists.

Edward Tufte is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. According to his bio on their site, “His research concerns statistical evidence and scientific visualization.” Looking through the Christie’s catalog, his interests in science history and visualization are well-represented, and the collection is quite impressive.

Of course, all of these items come at a price, rare and famous as they are. Would you expect anything less from such a notable auction house? Opticks is billed to sell for $30,000 – $40,000, Principia philosophiae for $6,000 – $8,000 and Siderius nuncius – the most expensive of the entire lot – is valued at between $600,000-$800,000 (all amounts in US Dollars). Here are a few other items for sale, accompanied by their expected fetching price:

– John Snow – On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849) $10,000 – $15,000 This is an important book that revolutionized our understanding of disease transmission. Steven Johnson’s book Ghost Map is based on this work, and is a fascinating read.

– Euclid – Elements $400 – $600 A 1589 copy of this important mathematical work that underlies our understanding of physics and math today. Euclid was born around 300 BC, and the oldest fragment of the Elements only dates to 100 AD.

– Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth(1651). $15,000 – $20,000 A very influential work in the history of political philosophy and social contract theory. You may recognize this quote from chapter 12 of the book, “…and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

– Christiaan Huygens – Systema Saturnium (1659) $25,000 – $35,000 This is a digest of Huygens’ observations of the Saturnian system, and contains one of the first drawings of the Orion nebula.

– Edmund Halley – A description of the passage of the shadow of the moon, over England, in the total eclipse of the sun, on the 22nd day of April 1715 in the morning. (1715) $15,000 – $20,000 An illustrated broadside of Halley’s prediction of the shadow cast by the lunar eclipse on April 22nd, 1715. There are a few other works from Halley for sale as well.

I suggest sifting through the catalog – there are a lot of detailed photos and descriptions of the books for sale, many of them rare gems from the history of philosophy and astronomy and science.

Tufte is also selling a piece of his own artwork for $50,000 – $70,000 titled, Pioneer Space Plaque: A Cosmic Prank (2010). A digital print that uses animation electronics, it is a redesign – and parody – of the original plaques that still fly aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes. For a picture, visit the auction page.

Source: Scientific American, Christie’s