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Mon May 27, 2013
On May 25th in the year AD 735 Baeda, the Venerable Bede, died. He was an English monk who in the 8th Century was
the first person we know of to have written scholarly works in the English language. He also wrote De Natura Rerurn,
which was a collection of works on geography and astronomy, much of it preserved knowledge from Greek civilization,
but also knowledge gained by observation and deduction. He was aware that the earth was round, and that the solar
year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long, but roughly 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes, so that the Julian calendar
(one leap year every four years) would need to be adjusted in order to keep the months in step with the seasons. (he
was a man far ahead of his time – the Gregorian calendar which developed from this observation would not be
implemented until 1582!) And he was the first to use the B.C. – A.D. designations in our modern calendar.
Tue May 28, 2013
Sixty years ago, on May 28th, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, became the first
explorers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. This great peak is over 29,000 feet
above sea level – that’s almost five and a half miles up, the highest point on earth. And yet that elevation is a mere trifle
to the largest mountain in the solar system. Mount Olympus is a gigantic extinct volcano on the planet Mars. Its over
fifteen miles high, about three times taller than Mount Everest! In order to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Hillary
needed an oxygen supply at the top. On Mars he would have needed oxygen at the bottom too, as Mar’s thin carbon
dioxide atmosphere is only one percent the thickness of earth’s air. Another breath-taking event tonight is the monthly
meeting of the Treasure Coast Astronomical Society; they’ll be at Indian River State College’s Fort Pierce campus – the
public is invited to attend. They’ll be meeting at 7:30 PM in the Science Center auditorium.
Wed May 29, 2013
There was a solar eclipse on May 28th - no, not yesterday; this eclipse happened way back in the year 585 B.C., which is a
little before my time. What was noteworthy about the eclipse is that this celestial event brought two opposing armies to
a standstill! As the historian Herodotus tells us: “Just as the battle was growing warm, day was suddenly changed into
night. When the Lydians and the Medes observed the change, they ceased their fighting and were anxious to conclude
peace.” The sun-worshipping armies recognized divine displeasure when they saw it, and a six-year war came to an end!
Interestingly, this eclipse was accurately predicted by Thales, the father of Greek astronomy. Luckily, the Lydians and the
Medes were not familiar with this new science. Now I will make a scientific prediction for this evening: three stars will
appear in the west at the end of sunset tonight, very close to the horizon. The lowest one is actually the planet Jupiter;
the middle one is Venus and the one on top is Mercury.
Thu May 30, 2013
May 30th is the original date for Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day. It’s been observed since 1868, as those
who fought and died on both sides of the American Civil War, the “War Between the States,” were remembered. Oliver
Wendell Holmes, in an 1884 Memorial Day address, reminded us that both …private and general stand side by side.
Unmarshalled save by their own deeds, the army of the dead sweep before us, "wearing their wounds like stars." In
another eulogy written by an unknown author, we are told that those who fought for our country are as the soft stars
that shine at night. According to legend, General George Washington made the first sketch of a starry flag. But more
likely it was Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who first urged the use of stars in our flag’s
design. We invoke the stars as our beacons in the dark. They shine on us all, the astronomer, the poet, those who labor,
those who create, those who fight to keep us safe, both in the sunlit day and in the starlit night.
Fri May 31, 2013
The sun is on the move. Now this movement I’m talking about is much more subtle than the obvious sunrise-sunset stuff
we get every day, due to earth’s rotation. Assuming you could make the sun dimmer so that you could see it and stars at
the same time, (something that only happens in a planetarium or during a total solar eclipse!) you’d notice the sun drifts
eastward against the background of stars. It’s a very slow motion caused not by earth’s rotation, but by its revolution
about the sun, which displaces the sun’s position by about 1o of angle a day – that’s less than the width of your little
finger at arm’s length! After roughly 365 days, the sun returns to where it had been exactly a year ago. For example,
right now the sun appears very close to the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. Next May 31st, the sun will be
right next to Aldebaran again. This defines the solar year as the amount of time needed for the sun to go full circle, once
around the zodiac in the heavens.