A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Friday, June 8, 2007

If I have seen further....the nose, the moose and the telescope.

“So it wasn't really until Galileo got his hands on a telescope that anyone really understood anything about space?”

The telescope was a huge advance but one of the most famous astronomers of all time, Tycho Brahe, died in 1601, just seven years before the telescope was invented in Holland in 1608.

“What was he famous for?”

As well being the worlds best astronomer four hundred years ago, he is also famous for having a magnificent moustache and loosing part of his nose.

“That's a bit careless, how did he do that?”

He had a duel in on 29th December 1566 with a Danish nobleman by the name of Manderup Parsberg and lost the end of his nose.

“What his fighting over, some woman I suppose?”

No, would you believe it, they were fighting to settle and argument over who was the best mathematician. Tycho Brahe was probably right about being the best mathematician but his sword skills were clearly not quite so sharp.

“So he spent the rest of his life without a nose?”

No he had a new one made of silver and wax.

“That's a bit weird isn't it?”

I presume that was what you did back then when someone sliced off your nose, but Tycho was certainly an unusual character. At one stage he had pet moose that he brought along to a party at the castle of Landskrona in Sweden. The moose apparently drank so much beer it fell down the stairs and broke its leg and died shortly after. Despite these series of unfortunate events, Tycho became famous across Europe for his talent in making extraordinarily accurate astronomical records of the positions stars and planets. Remember Johannes Kepler I told you about who worked out how the planets move? Well, Kepler was Tycho's student and he used all these measurements to produce his laws of planetary motion.

“How did he make all those measurements without a telescope?”

He used his eyes along with a variety of instruments like the sextant and quadrant to help measure the position of the stars. He didn't believe in the ancient Greek view of the universe with the Earth in the centre or the new outrageous Copernican notion of the Earth moving around the Sun. It may not surprise you to know that this slightly larger than life character believed most strongly in his own theories. His theory had the Earth at the centre but the rest of the planets moving around the sun which in turn moved around the Earth. This was as close to Copernican thinking as you could get without getting excommunicated by the Church but it was also wrong. He had great faith that his young student Kepler, with his mathematical abilities, would be able to use Tycho’s own huge volumes of measurements of planetary positions to prove his own theories right. He fortunately died before Kepler showed something completely different.

“But the telescope must have changed things completely.”

It certainly did, it also helped to finally separate astronomy from astrology.

"I thought you said that astrology was all rubbish."

I did and it is, but hundreds of years ago people wanted their fortunes told just like they do today. The astronomers of the day like Tycho Brahe had to make predictions to get paid. They had become so good at predicting the movements of the planets and eclipses that ordinary people and a few kings as well, assumed they could predict anything which of course they couldn't. But just like today, as long as they were fairly vague in their predictions no-one seemed to mind if they didn't come true.

"So how did the telescope change things?"

By making astronomy into a science. A lot of famous names we've already met designed new types of telescopes, like Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Newton developed a totally new type of telescope based on mirrors rather than lenses and the biggest light telescopes today use mirrors to collect and focus light. As bigger and better telescopes helped astronomers see fainter and more distant objects, the size of the known universe steadily grew.

“So how far away can we see now with the best telescopes.”

With telescopes like the Hubble space telescope, galaxies have been seen that are up to 13 billion light years away. The light from these galaxies has been travelling for so long that some of these light beams started their journey just 700 million years after the universe was formed in the big bang, . From these distant galaxies we can look into the past and tell what the universe was like when it was very young.

“So you can see into the past with telescopes, but not into the future.”

Exactly and deeper into space. In just four hundred years mankind's understanding of the universe has stretched from the solar system to galaxies billions of light years away. Isaac Newton once said, 'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants', but you could change that to say 'If man has seen further, it is because Newton developed the reflecting telescope.'

1 Comment:

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