Archive for the ‘Scientists’ Category

Aristotle had done ancient and medieval astronomers a considerable service by drawing a line between physics and the mathematical sciences, including astronomy, in a way that could be interpreted to mean that astronomers need not search for Aristotelian “causes” for celestial motions. By Ptolemy’s day, it had become routine to invent devices such as the epicycle and equant that yielded reliable predictions, without any need to explain what might cause the planets to move in the manner prescribed by those devices. In fact, to declare that Ptolemy either did or did not think the planets literally move in the way these mechanisms had them moving would be to misunderstand him. In the absence of any remote chance of conclusive direct evidence one way or the other, there was much to be said for not belaboring that question–maybe for not even realizing the possibility of such a question. A man who worried about whether his mathematical system represented literal reality was an exception. This was not an intellectual situation confined to the ancients. A similar mind-set exists today at the leading edge of theoretical physics. (Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler)

Ptolemy couldn’t get his geocentric model to work right with his observations of the skies. Why did some planets appear to move backwards sometimes? Why do planets change their speeds? He scratched his head and went to work fudging the equations to make it work, because it simply had to work. There wasn’t any other viable option (nevermind that pesky Aristarchus…crazy sun centered fool!).

But Kepler knew better. Kepler was a Copernican. He knew that the earth was just another planet warlbling her way along some invisible path around the sun. What Kepler meant to figure out was how to work the math that really and truly described what was happening in the sky, not just fudged numbers.

Was Kepler a crazy maniacal bulldog who hated Brahe’s fame/weath/success and ultimately poisoned Brahe with mercury in order to steal his observations? Or was Kepler a mild mannered–if perhaps slightly abrasive–fellow, who waited patiently for old Brahe to decide to hand over the observations, coincidentally dying a few short days later? I’m afraid we shall never know. What we do know is that Kepler obsessed and guessed and checked  and took long walks and stayed up all night and made tables and pictures and wrote chapters and ignored his wife for years and years, whittling away at his theories, before finally solving Ptolemy’s problem of planets that go backward and change speeds. (I won’t try to rehash all that math gnashing for you. If you’re interested, there’s a great math gnash rehash here). I’ll just give you the short skinny:

Kepler ultimately discovered that planets travel in ellipses rather than in circles. They speed up when they are closer to the sun, because of the sun’s gravitational pull. Because the planets don’t travel at the same speeds, some planets may “lap” each other, so to speak, which causes Ptolemy’s problem of planets that appear to be moving backwards.

(NASA SP-4212)

That may sound rather anticlimactic but please rest assured this seemingly simple deduction was perfectly outrageous in the early 1600’s (even Copernicus had his planets traveling in perfect little o’s). Kepler’s discovery reformed all of astronomy, eventually leading to the formation of the laws of planetary motion. These laws, along with Newton’s mathematical theories, gave rise to a new generation of modern astronomy and physics.

From the time Kepler first began working with Tycho’s data at Benatky, he chose to let the tight constraints of mathematical/geometrical logic and precise observations be his primary guides and to give them, for a while, precedence over the [ancient Greek] ideas of symmetry and harmony. Kepler was setting a precedence still followed in science, where symmetry, harmony and logical beauty are not the most important criteria for judging whether a theory is correct. (Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler)

ps. Kepler really was the Imperial Mathematician for Rudolph II. One of his jobs was to do astrological readings for the Royalty.

pps. His mom was arrested and taken to jail when she was 74 years old, accused of being a witch by some meddling neighbors. Kepler and his lawyer wrote up a 126 page legal brief to try and get her acquitted, but it was his mother’s own verbal defense in the presence of a bailiff and a torturer which ultimately saved her. The neighbors were charged 10 florins (about a dollar and a half) for the false report.


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The last two astronomers I’m going to expound upon have a book written about them entitled Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens. It’s written by a woman named Kitty Ferguson. (I love that name…Kitty Ferguson…what a terrific marriage of whimsy and pragmatism!) Usually I find historical non-fiction books a bit dry, but this one was rather a good read. I think it might be the first book of it’s type that I read all the way through and mostly in order. Usually I get bored and skip around a lot, which sometimes leads to eventual completion and other times to confusion and abandonment.

Anyway.  Tycho (pronounced like Tee-ko or more accurately Tÿcho, which was a Latinized version of his given name Tyge) Brahe and Johannes Kepler were unlikely candidates for “The Partnership that Forever Changed the Way We View the Heavens.” Here’s a little breakdown of what I’ve learned from Kitty Ferguson (I’ll do Tycho first, he was older):

Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546, into a family of great wealth. When he was two years old, his aunt and uncle (his father’s brother) kidnapped him from his parent’s castle and took him to their own castle a few hours away. Apparently his parents didn’t mind so very much that he was stolen from them. His father Otte did threaten to murder his brother if Tycho wasn’t returned, but they never made any attempt to retrieve him. This may have had to do with the fact that Otte’s wife Beate gave birth to eleven children and Jørgen and Inger, the aunt and uncle, had none, save young Tycho.

The kidnapping turned out to be a boon for Tycho, because his aunt Inger’s family were scholors, while the Brahe’s were militiamen. Otte felt that there was no need to study Latin, while Inger’s family made certain that Tycho had the best education available at the time. (One of Inger’s closest friends was Princess Anne of Denmark, one of the few recorded female alchemists.) Tycho grew up to be very suave and confident as he mingled with royalty. He understood etiquette and custom to a fine, fine point. His style and flair at kingly court was matched only by his exacting methodology and mathematical genius. Jørgen wanted Tycho to become a lawyer but Tycho wanted only to study the stars, which he did secretly, unbeknownst to the “preceptor” (sort of like a mild spy/nanny) that Jørgen hired to attend University of Copenhagen with fifteen-year-old Tycho.

Eventually Jørgen died and Tycho was able to study the skies out of the closet, so to speak. (He was still hampered by the fact that noblemen were not supposed to lower themselves to such petty careers as scientists, but he was able to find ways to buck that system as he grew older more savvy to the politics of the day.) Shortly after his foster father’s death, Tycho had an argument with a cousin over which man was the better mathematician. The quarrel came to blows and a portion of Tycho’s nose was severed. It took him a full season to heal from the wound, but in this time his lifelong interest in medicinal alchemy was set. Tycho had a two new noses sculpted from metal–one of lightweight copper for everyday use, and another of gold and silver mixed together (fleshtone) for special occasions. He attached the nose to his face with special adhesive salve.

Tycho eventually became the premier astronomer in Europe during a time of great observation and theory making. Tycho rejected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, although he knew things weren’t so simple as Ptolemy made them out to be. Tycho tried to have his cake and eat it too, coming up with the geo-heliocentric model: the Moon and the Sun revolve around the Earth, everything else revolves around the Sun.

Not surprisingly, it was Tycho’s astronomical observations and the instruments he invented and built to make them (along with his political schmoozing) and not fabulous attempt at a new cosmological theory that made him famous. Tycho built three huge observatories in his life, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg on the island of Hven in Denmark and another outside Prague later in his life. He spent forty years attempting to make the world’s most accurate empirical measurements of the stars, planets, and comets.

Interesting Brahe-ian tidbits:

Wikipedia says that Tycho kept a clairvoyant dwarf and a court jester at his lavish observatory on the Danish island Hven. He also had a beloved tame moose-like animal, which got into the beer hold one evening, became intoxicated and died falling down the stairs of the castle. This marked the beginning of a very sad time in Tycho’s life.

Tycho was incredibly secretive of his observational records, preferring to keep them to himself and a very close assistants, rather than publish them. He was fearful that other would-be astronomers would steal his ideas, which they often ended up doing anyway.

Tycho Brahe published several books (some from his personal printing press at Hven) despite the fact that noblemen weren’t supposed to stoop to such lowly scholarly activities.

Tycho tutored a young, upstart Protestant mathematician named Johannes Kepler who was fleeing a spirituality torn Germany. Tycho was suspicious that Kepler was a spy for many, many months and refused to show Kepler his life’s work of observations until a few days prior to his death.

Tycho died of either a.) a burst bladder brought on by the fact that he wouldn’t get up to urinate during a royal dinner (it wasn’t polite) or b.) he was poisoned with mercury by an unknown murderer.

More on Johannes Kepler next time around…

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Columbus Day is rapidly approaching. I know that, because two of my sisters were born on Columbus Day. And one nephew too. One of my sisters, whose birthday is rapidly approaching, got me a present for my birthday (which is in April) and even if she didn’t mail me my present yet, she got me one and so I feel like I should get her one too, a really good one, and put it on my refrigerator until she mails mine. That way there would be matching un-mailed presents on the tops of two fridges at the kitty corner’s of our great North American continent. None of that is what I wanted to talk about though. I wanted to talk about the earth’s shape and orbital status within the Solar System.

Now, while some people are still on the fence about it, most people believe that the earth is a sphere. Some of these people have actually known that the Earth was a sphere a waaaaaayyyy long time ago, waaaaaaayyyyy before Christopher Columbus sailed that ocean blue and didn’t fall off. Some people say that Aristotle (350 BCE) was the first to observe that the Earth was round when he saw that it cast a circular shadow during a lunar eclipse. Pythagoras supposedly wrote about the round Earth 15o years prior to Aristotle. According to my sources, it’s very likely that Columbus already knew that the world was round before he even sailed. It’s a wonder that he gets all that credit and my sister’s birthday named after him.

So here’s the story on geo v. heliocentrism. Ptolemy, who was born around 90 AD, wrote a series of volumes collectively entitled The Almgest which means “the Great Treatise.” This massive work was a collection of everything anyone had published about astronomy up to that date, plus a few extra of Ptolemy’s own gleanings. Ptolemy was a very influential fellow and his book provided the foundations for the next few centuries of astronomers. But, Ptolemy made a few tiny errors in his book…

Aristarchus of Samos, born around 310 BC, believed that the sun was at the center of our solar system.

Aristarchus has brought out a book consisting of certain hypotheses, wherein it appears, as a consequence of the assumptions made, that the universe is many times greater than the ‘universe’ just mentioned. His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, that the Earth revolves about the Sun on the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the Floor. (Archimedes in The Sand Reckoner)

Ptolemy didn’t believe Aristarchus. He put the geocentric model into his Almgest, and because it was such a good read, and because certain special priests enjoyed the prestige of being “chosen” as God’s very favorites, and because the Earth doesn’t feel like it’s moving, the idea stuck for a while…and scientists of the day mulled over whether Aristarchus should be punished for publishing such pernicious ideas…until Copernicus entered the scene a few centuries later.

Copernicus was a very smart fellow who had a funny haircut for at least one day of his life (see attached painting), who happened to believe that Aristarchus was right. Copernicus had the smarts enough to wait until he was on his death bed to publish his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which was the first argument for a heliocentric model in hundreds of years.(Giordano Bruno, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1600 for promoting a heliocentric model.) It’s said that Copernicus awoke one evening and was shown a copy of the newly printed book at which point he closed his eyes once more and died peacefully.

On the sweet note of this portrait of Copernicus from 1580, I’ll leave you pondering the outcome of orbital hierarchies. Stay tuned to discover which famous stargazer broke open the geohelio conflict, which one glued on his own nose each morning, and which one calculated the accepted birth date of Christ based on an a rare astrological conjunction…

ps. In lieu of celebrating Columbus Day, you can just send my sisters a present, if you want to.

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Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. –Einstein

Long hair reduces the need for barbers; socks can be done without; one leather jacket solves the coat problem for many years; suspenders are superfluous. –Einstein

Today I was driving down the road and I saw a man driving a van with his arm dangling out the window. I was thinking about something else and I glanced over and thought to myself, hairy arm. That was all. Just hairy arm and then back to business. But then another voice, a voice that sounded a little like a man who might do the voiceovers on a toothpaste commercial, entered from stage left and exclaimed, no, no, NO! That arm is so very hairy! Don’t you feel  squeamish looking at it? Ew.

At this point we had stopped at a red light and so I glanced back over to the man’s arm to check if I felt squeamish about it. No. No, I don’t feel squeamish. It’s just a hairy arm. Leave me alone Toothpaste Voiceover Man Head Voice.

Oh, said TVMHV, then left me alone in the car.

I’m taking a meditation class at the Brahma Kumaris Center here in town. Yesterday the teacher spoke about a thing called sanskaras, which are grooves carved into our consciousness by our past experiences. Once something happens the same way more than once, it creates a groove or a rut. When we have a new experience which is similar to something that happened to us in the past (maybe I heard somebody say once that hairy arms are gross?), we can slip into the groove of our sanskara as a shortcut, because it’s easier than recreating our response anew again.

Some sanskaras are good, like organizing your desk when you feel stressed out or putting flowers on the kitchen table for dinner. Often though, our sanskara do not benefit us. Maybe you get enraged when someone cuts you off on the street. Maybe you lie about your age. Maybe you judge people with hairy arms. You perceive the world, and then you make a judgement based on your past experience.

But what if you’ve changed your mind? Or you want to change your mind, but your sanskara is so deep that you just keep doing the same thing despite your desire to change? The teacher of my meditation class said that we must train our intellect to take charge of the thoughts that run through our heads. Otherwise we are pulled through the world on these pre-carved ruts, and we cease to have the ability to make our own, authentic way.

I’m proud of myself for using my intellect today. Somewhere in this world is a man with hairy arms who doesn’t need to defend himself from my invisible but damaging judgmental thoughts. It’s a small but worthy victory. Aahhh. Sweet victory.

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Once recently, a friend mentioned offhandedly that she was trying to stop talking about people behind their backs. I thought to myself, wow! that’s neat! I wonder how she’ll do? It didn’t really occur to me until about an hour later, when I noticed myself talking about somebody behind his back, that perhaps I should work on this too. Thus began my yo-yo attempt at being nice behind people’s backs.

I just finished a book called Ghostwalk (written by Rebecca Stott) which is about alchemy, Isaac Newton, and a few killins’ (I won’t say by whom, in case you want to read it). In the book there is a lot revealed about Isaac Newton, including a list of sins that he’d committed (written in code, of course). Here are a few interesting ones:

1. Using the word (God) openly. 2. Eating an apple at Thy house. 3. Making a feather (quill?) on Thy day. 4. Denying that I made it. 5. Making a mousetrap on Thy day. 6. Contriving of the chimes on Thy day. 10. Putting a pin in Iohn Keys  hat on Thy day to pick him. 13. Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them. 17. Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer. 26. Calling Derothy Rose a jade. 43. Missing chapel. 44. Beating Arthur Storer.

There are lots of strange (and mildly amusing) things in this list (even more in the expanded version) which is perhaps why it was written in code (putting a pin in somebody’s hat to prick them? sheesh). Of course, I’d be mortified to find that in the year 2500 someone decoded and read my secret-list-of-sins journal.

But Isaac Newton was an alchemist. He knew that a person grows more and more spiritual with every bad habit he (or she) releases into the wild. He, like spirit seeking folks before and after him, felt the burn of guilt that follows doing something that you feel is wrong, something you have challenged yourself to overcome.

I talk a little shit about people from time to time (pardon my Old English). Sometimes I don’t for a while. It confuses me, because sometimes somebody does something that really bothers me or hurts my feelings, and talking about it, telling about how mean that person was or how thoughtless, makes me feel better. Until I begin to feel guilty about talking so mean about them, anyway.

Like Newton, I want to be better. I want to burn that part of me away, let it go.

Step 1: admit to millions of people that I talk smack about others. (ok, my readership is slightly lower than that, but we’re talkin’ potential here!)

Step 2: read a self-help book.

Step 3: begin again.

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