Message From the Moon
At first glance, these probably come across as little more than hastily painted watercolor sketches of the moon. That’s precisely what they are, actually. Attractive, yes, but certainly not high art.
But hiding in their shadows lies a greater significance. The squiggled edges of that bleeding ink bear an observation that altered the heavens themselves. Or at the very least, our view of them.
The hand that traced these orbs belonged to none other than Galileo Galilei. They were included in his 1610 work Sidereus Nuncius (“The Sidereal Message”, which would make a great band name), the first scientific text based on telescope observations. To understand the significance of his illustrations, it helps to understand the world in which he drew them.
In 1610, cosmology, not that it had much to show for itself as a science, was still based on the ideas of Aristotle, who by this time had been dead for 18 centuries. So current! Copernicus’ observation that the Earth orbited the sun, first published in 1543, had begun to challenge Aristotelian supremacy, it wasn’t exactly a popular idea.
Aristotle’s cosmological beliefs were based on the idea that the heavens were made of a perfect substance called “aether”, and therefore the circular motions and spherical shapes of heavenly bodies were also perfect. Earth, he claimed, was inherently imperfect, as were all the things that existed upon it. Everything in the heavens was awesome, and Earthly matter was inherently “just okay”, even if its name was Aristotle. This was one of the reasons people found Copernicus’ claims so hard to swallow. The imperfect Earth among the perfect heavens? Heresy!
Enter Galileo and his humble 20x telescope, in 1609. At the time, in Aristotelian fashion, the moon, being of the heavens, was assumed to be a perfect sphere, its dark and light areas just splotches upon the billiard-ball-smooth lunar surface. I imagine it took Galileo about 7 seconds of lunar observation to realize that was not the case.
The terminator, that line that separates the moon’s illuminated face from its dark one, is jagged as a crocodile’s smile. I’ve seen it myself through modern telescopes, and I must say, it’s really something to witness how light and shadow break over a distant crater’s edge. Galileo painted this in his sketches above, inferring that the moon in fact had a rough and crater-marked face. This meant that not only was Earth not the center of the universe, as Copernicus had shown, but the heavens themselves were imperfect, just like Earth.
Scientists would go on to realize that the orbits of heavenly bodies were not perfect circles, nor were the bodies perfect spheres, and that everything up there is made of the same stuff as everything down here. It was either a huge demotion for the heavens, or a great promotion for Earth, I’m not sure.
Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius also included newly detailed maps of the constellations and the mention of four moons of Jupiter (although detailed observations of those were still centuries away), but it was his drawings of our moon that bore the most impact on future astronomical science, realigning the heavens with a single stroke of the brush.
Keep on drawing, and keep on looking up.
(You can read an English translation of Sidereus Nuncius here. If you’re hungry for more selenology, tour through these historical maps of the moon. Tip of the telescope to Steve Silberman for tweeting these sketches.)
Coming to YouTube on August 19th!
Frankenstein M.D. is a modern re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (did you know it was the first sci-fi book?), from Pemberley Digital, the same people who brought you The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Emma Approved, and PBS Digital Studios. The story centers around Victoria Frankenstein (rather than “Victor” from the book), an eccentric and driven MD/PhD student who wants to prove herself in the traditionally male-dominated field of medical research. Basically, this is what we would get if Mary Shelley created a YouTube science show :)
I’m also happy to announce that I’m lending my PhD chops and serving as science consultant for the series, which is SO FUN!!! I’m working hard to make sure the science you’ll see in the series is the real thing. At least in theory. I mean, we can’t really bring frightening creatures back from the dead. Yet.
Check out the full details on the series, the cast, and the premiere here. And, just like the worlds of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, the Frankenstein universe will be bigger than just the videos. Here’s a few links so you can start following the characters:
A visual compendium of bioluminescent creatures by Seattle-based artist Eleanor Lutz, reminiscent of Ernest Haeckel’s pioneering drawings from the early 1900s. Also available as a poster.
Pair with the first poem published in a scientific journal, an ode to bioluminescence.
Let it glow!
What’s your favorite? I’m a jelly man myself.
Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle. —
Stuart Firestein, from Ignorance: How It Drives Science
I was reminded of this quote, which sums up the driving force of the scientific process better than just about anything I’ve ever read, today after watching the latest Vlogbrothers video, in which Hank Green channels his inner Socrates:
"I know one thing, that I know nothing."
Watch Hank admit to being a towering mountain of ignorance (something we should all admit) below…
How did life begin?
I’ve been thinking a lot about abiogenesis this week, the process of life arising from non-life, that oh-so-important series of events that occurred here on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. (If you’re wondering “Does this mean he’s making a video about it?” the answer is yes!)
Scientists have a fair amount of information about how that might have occurred on the level of geology (terrestrial and extraterrestrial), chemistry, and finally, biology to bring about this living world, but there’s a ton of unanswered questions.
Of course, the most important unanswered questions are your own.
Share your curiosity with me about the origin of life on Earth! What questions do you want me to answer?