Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

10.7 The Seventh Day: We Are All Made of Stars

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

iya_logo1This week’s selection of characters has covered a fairly broad range of astronomers and astrophysicists: historical, professional and amateur.

As I’ve tried to show, Astronomy is probably the only scientific discipline which is as accessible to a schoolchild as it is to an Ivy League research professor, because ultimately the sky is the same for everybody and changes little over time. The only limiting factor is cost.

Traditionally the level of technical equipment available to the professionals is generally much greater than the average amateur can access.  Whereas amateurs may typically use binoculars or small telescopes ranging from a size of 6 cm at $150 up to 30 cm for $4000 or more, professionals have access to huge telescopes of several meters in size, costing multiple millions of dollars (for example Keck with its dual 10m primary mirrors cost $231 million to build, and $47,000 per night to use at 2002 prices).

But as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, all that is about to change…

Because currently in beta testing are two exciting new software applications: “Google Sky” and Microsoft “WorldWide Telescope.”  These two free internet-based applications will provide access to photographs and other data recorded from many of the world’s top-level research telescopes.  Google Sky uses a web interface at, and WorldWide Telescope (which is currently a Windows-only application, but will launch a Web 2.0 interface soon) uses one at

Here are examples of Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope:

image from Google Sky

image from Google Sky



image from WorldWide Telescope

image from WorldWide Telescope













WorldWide Telescope is actually a continuation of the TerraServer project (originally formed by computer scientist Jim Gray at Microsoft Research), using the previous databases and infrastructure created for Microsoft Virtual Earth.  It has now been extended to include whole-sky digital maps which in some cases are updated as frequently as every three days (and if you do happen to purchase a “Go-To” telescope, these computer programs can even be used to point your own telescope at what you are seeing on the screen, so you have a live real-time view).

So, why do I think the development of these software programs is important?  Because for the first time since the days of Tycho Brahe and Galileo, the playing field is truly level; and Joe (and Josephine) Average have the same access to high quality astronomy data as professionals.

We are all made of stars, but not many of us take the time to stop and look up at them.  But now, without even owning a telescope, anyone with a computer and internet access can access near-realtime images of the same quality that professional scientists use for their research work.

And to Astronomy, I think that may become just as important as the invention of the telescope itself.

So, that’s it for my week on the blog.  We now return you to your regular programming, already in progress…

-Iain B.

10.5 Tycho Brahe: Great Thinker, Great Drinker
January 16, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: People Looking at the Stars | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe

OK, so 16th Century astronomer Tycho Brahe isn’t exactly a contemporary character – he predates Galileo by at least 50 years or so and is much less well known. But he was an interesting chap all the same, and led quite a colorful life.

For example, not only did he get drunk and belligerent enough during his college Christmas party to challenge another student to a fight (I’m sure we’ve all been there, done that); but he actually refused to back down in the cold light of sobriety.  He went through with the sword duel, in which he lost both the challenge and his nose (his challenger, quite literally, having cut off his nose to spite his face.)

Undaunted, Brahe just got himself a new one.  Depending on whose account you believe, he had a prosthetic nose made out of silver, gold or copper.  But this rather unorthodox facial bling doesn’t seem to have done his reputation or his status in society much harm, because he was soon wining and dining with the royalty of Denmark (which included much of Scandanavia at the time) and lightening their purses in the process.

Brahe follows in the footsteps of ancient civilisations such as the Egyptian pharaohs, in managing to do something which is almost impossible today: he persuaded the government of Denmark to contribute  a significant percentage of the country’s assets (1% of the GDP) towards a science project.  Whereas previous civilizations had invested their resources into building pyramids to make their permanent place in history (although it has to be said that the Mayans in particular were excellent astronomers too), for Brahe his legacy was to be the building of the first modern observatory.  (As a comparison to more recent US history, the entire Apollo moon program was about 0.4% of US GDP at its 1969 peak.  So for any country to dedicate 1% of GDP is a huge investment, especially for a project which provides no real tangible results to the economy.)

Unfortunately for Brahe, the telescope had not yet been invented, but he still managed to lay the foundations of modern astronomical science by the observations he made through careful triangulation of the planets during the year.  As just one example, he validated most of the Copernican model of the solar system (i.e., with our sun at the center of certain planetary orbits) although he still put Earth as an exception to that rule (more for religious than scientific reasons–Galileo was to discover the perils of heliocentrism vis-à-vis the Church some years later.)  I won’t bore you with the details, but be assured that Brahe “did the math” and proved the orbits of the planets to a very accurate degree.  Not surprisingly, many students from the European Continent came to Brahe for instruction in astronomy.

He was also known for being an eccentric host.  Often throwing parties in his family seat, Knutstorp Castle, Brahe had in residence two rather unique members of his household that doubled as entertainment.  First, he had in his employ a little person/dwarf by the name of Jepp, who was his jester and believed by Brahe to be clairvoyant; apparently, Jepp would sit beneath the table during dinner parties, from whence Brahe would bring him out to make pronouncements and predictions for his guests.  In addition, Brahe was also famous for owning a pet moose.  (Which stayed in the house with him.) Unfortunately, after indulging in too much ale one night, the said moose fell down the stairs of Brahe’s castle, broke a leg, and ultimately died.

But what may well be the lasting thing to remember about Brahe–beyond his prosthetic nose and the alcoholic tendencies he and his pet moose shared–was that he proved that high-tech equipment isn’t always necessary to make solid contributions to science.  That tradition continues even today, as amateur astronomers are making some of the most prolific contributions to new minor planet and asteroid discoveries.

In the end, though, the booze was Brahe’s downfall–at least partly.  The legend is that, not wanting to offend the royal court during a banquet, he delayed leaving the king’s table for several hours, the result being a bladder infection.  The king’s apothecaries treated him with a compound containing mercury, and rather than cure his ills it finished him off.  (So he went down drinking.  There are worse ways to go.)

So here’s to Tycho Brahe : great thinker, great drinker.  Not a bad epitaph I’d say.

10.1 Happy Anniversary, Galileo!

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), but not many people seem to know that… at least not yet.

This week will see the official launch of the IYA at an opening ceremony in Paris, France. I’m sure there will be grandiose projects such as expensive space probes doing marvellous things around alien worlds, and lots of pretty pictures on the news taken from observatories in exotic locations such as Tenerife and Hawaii (hmm, and how is it that the big telescopes always seem to be located at beautiful holiday destinations?  Nice coincidence.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.  No, I think the real success story of IYA2009 will be the Galileoscope.

2009 was chosen for the IYA because it marks the 400th anniversary of the day one Italian guy (Galileo) decided to take a pair of reading glasses (spectacles) and cut them up to make a special “looking glass” – then pointed it upward in search of God in the heavens.  Well, he didn’t find God;  but what he did find were several planets, including one that came with peculiar ears attached (Saturn and its rings.)  Perhaps finding these celestial bodies–not the ones he had been looking for–hadn’t been his original intention. But it did lead to his assertion that, contrary to popular thought, the Earth circled around the Sun (and not vice versa),  which really rankled the Pope at the time (Galileo was eventually placed under house arrest for his “heretical” views) and assured him a place in the history books. 

Oh, of course Galileo wasn’t really the first to make or use a telescope; we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that a patent was filed in the Netherlands more than a decade previously. But every science needs a celebrity, so Galileo fits the role as well as anyone.

So yes, in 2009 we will celebrate his momentous act – not making a telescope or even finding the planets – no, the real celebration is the pivotal moment when Man was first able to look beyond the limits of his natural eyesight, and open his mind the great expanse of the universe.

It’s fitting, then, on this auspicious anniversary of its creation, that the Galileoscope has been reinvented. Only this time it’s not a crude telescope that would take weeks to build and provide only a dim image of the cosmos.  No, this time it’s a do-it-yourself $20 kit that any school child can use to learn the basics of optics and astronomy. Once assembled, it is this inexpensive tool that has the potential to really change the world, by seeding an entire generation with the technology to look beyond themselves–beyond our small planet– at a time when the world perhaps needs it more than ever.

Now that’s something really worth a celebration.