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Dazzling Darkness

June 23, 2017

“The strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects. This is the discipline that deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings...for what is more beautiful than heaven?” - Copernicus

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplation of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, or falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” - Carl Sagan

 

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This is the third of three posts on astronomy. (To access the previous two posts, click here and here). Also, a great thanks to Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer, for supplying all of the photos and much of the content for these astronomy blogs.

As we have prevoiusly discussed, the night sky tells us as much about ourselves as about the stars. For centuries, man has linked the complexity of humans with the starry heavens. As Henri Poincaré explains, “Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand;...it shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony.” Since these images grab our attention and imagination, people continue to develop and enhance tools used in studying space. Last week we discussed the catalog created by Charles Messier, and this week we focus on another catalog created by Edward Barnard, a pioneer of astro-imaging.

M 42, The Orion Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

M 42, The Orion Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

Edward Barnard was born in Nashville, Tennessee. He received a fellowship to Vanderbilt University, where he spent four years, but never graduated. However he did receive an honorary degree, the only one ever awarded by Vanderbilt. He discovered ten comets during his time at Vanderbilt. He was then appointed to Lick Observatory in California, where he served four years. He then turned to the University of Chicago as a professor of practical astronomy. During these years he was responsible for identifying and cataloging the Dark Nebulae, which was later named the Barnard Catalog, numbering from 1 through 370 (although not all numbers in the sequence were used).

At one time, dark nebulae were thought to be holes in the Milky Way, but this is not so. The dark nebulae are actually interstellar dust clouds blocking or obscuring our view of the Milky Way. These dust clouds may be small, dusty star-forming regions, or they may be portions of larger dark lanes of galactic dust. Because of their darkness, they create interesting images. The following two images and nebula details were supplied by amateur astronomer Richard Johnson.

IC 434. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

IC 434. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

The Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) is a small dark nebula silhouetted against the glow of the emission nebula IC 434. Barnard 33 is the most interesting feature of a huge region of gas and dust situated 1,600 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion. Only by chance does the dark nebula resemble the head of a horse. But this coincidental appearance has led to its becoming one of the most photographed objects in the sky. The narrow patch of nebulosity extends from the leftmost star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak. Barnard 33 is a dark globule of dust and non-luminous gas, obscuring the light coming from the moderately bright IC 434 nebula behind it. The red glow of IC 434 originates from ionized hydrogen gas. The Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) is about 900 light years from Earth, and is part of the Orion Molecular Complex, a star forming region that includes the Horsehead Nebula. The Flame Nebula is ionized and made to luminesce by the eastern most star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak. NGC 2024 glows in a variety of colors, from yellow to orange, though the predominant hue is shell-pink. Additional dark gas and dust lies in front of the bright part of the nebula, and this is what causes the dark network that appears in the center of the glowing gas.

Barnard 72, The Snake Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

Barnard 72, The Snake Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

The Snake Nebula (Barnard 72) is about 5 light years across. It is located about 650 light years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). It is a part of the Dark Horse Nebula.

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Globular Clusters

June 16, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This is the second of three posts about astronomy. (Last week's post can be found here.) In today's post, we will trace a little bit of the ideas and theories behind contemporary astronomy and also introduce a Charles Messier as well as globular cluster (M 5). Today's image depends upon equipment newly made available to amateur astronomers. In fact, much of contemporary astronomy depends upon the mechanical aid of telescopes and computers. These machines enable humans to look past what the naked eye can see. They have also greatly changed the conversation surrounding astronomy.

Astronomy has always posed questions about humanity's size and existence in comparison to the heavens. It has also consistently focused on observation. However, aside from those similarities, astronomy has greatly changed in theory, application and acceptance. We currently accept that the earth revolves around the sun, but this was not always the case. Understanding that earth is a planet with similar matter as heavenly bodies revolutionized the study of astronomy. Copernicus' proposal seemed absurd at the time, since the details did not correspond to observable reality. As humanity slowly grew to accept Copernican ideas, they also began to refute Aristotle's emphasis on sense-experience. In other words, establishing that earth is part of a much larger system that we cannot directly observe changes human understanding of truth. Sensory data is unreliable in terms of astronomy. Furthermore, Adler notes in the Syntopicon that the changing awareness of heavenly bodies was perhaps even more radical. He writes, “[T]he unification of nature which Kepler began and Newton completed, when set against Aristotle's physics, may be even more radical.” That matter on earth can correspond to the same rules as bodies in outer space simultaneously reinforced humanity's smallness while changing any understanding of space as a container for religious or spiritual beings.

These theories continued to evolve and be proven correct through data. Adler notes, “[A]stronomy has one peculiar feature which distinguishes it from other branches of mathemetical physics. It is empirical rather than experimental. The astronomer does not control the phenomena.” This important point leads us into some present-day astrological tools. As instrumentation advanced, astronomers kept copious notes and catalogs of their data. This has turned into helpful data for other astronomers and also amateur astronomers. Any interested person can now access many of these tools online. Most require a telescope, but a number of them are even visible to the naked eye.

One helpful tool comes from French astronomer Charles Messier. While, Messier was originally searching for comets, he noted over 100 objects that impeded or confused his view of comets. These objects are now labeled a variety of nebula, clusters, and galaxies. Messier (with the help from his contemporaries) took note of the placement of these anomalies in the sky. These objects have become popular viewing items and even received names and labels. In last week's post, we shared Richard Johnson's images of M 31, M 101 and M 51, which used the Messier numbering system. These items correspond to objects discovered in the Messier catalog. The accessibility and improvement of telescopes has given rise to the Messier Catalog's popularity. There is even a spring Messier marathon for the more serious astronomer. Another helpful website even organizes the catalog according to object.

The following photo is of globular cluster M 5. Merriam-Webster defines globular cluster as “any of various approximately spherical clusters of gravitationally associated stars that typically populate galactic halos.” Space.com helps ascertain the meaning and importance of globular clusters. They write, “Globular clusters are densely packed collections of ancient stars. Roughly spherical in shape, they contain hundreds if not thousands, and sometimes millions, of stars. Studying them helps astronomers estimate the age of the universe or figure out where the center of a galaxy lies.”

Globular Cluster M 5. Image credit: Richard Johnson.

Globular Cluster M 5. Image credit: Richard Johnson.

Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer, writes that, “the globular cluster M 5 (NGC 5904) is located in the constellation Serpens and is one of the finest globular clusters in the sky. M 5 is estimated to be 13 billion years old, making it one of the oldest globular clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy. M 5 is estimated to be about 24,500 light years from Earth. The cluster contains more than 100,000 stars and perhaps up to 500,000 stars according to some estimates. M 5 is one of the larger globular clusters known, spanning 165 light years across.”

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Astronomy Imaging

June 9, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

In the Syntopicon (Astronomy and Cosmology chapter), Mortimer Adler notes that “Man has used astronomy to measure not only the passage of time or the course of a voyage, but also his position in the world, his power of knowing, his relation to God. When man first turns from himself and his immediate earthly surroundings to the larger universe of which he is a part, the object which presses on his vision is the overhanging firmament with its luminous bodies, moving with great basic regularity and, upon closer observation, with certain perplexing irregularities. Always abiding and always changing, the firmament, which provides man with the visible boundary of his universe, also becomes for him a basic, in fact, an inescapable, object of contemplation.” While this quote attempts to encapsulate stars' effect on the human imagination, it is still rather difficult to ascertain what exactly we feel when we gaze up at the heavens.

Astronomers are now able to gather data from such distances as boggle the mind. And at each turn, more questions arise. We wonder about human existence, about our fragility or stability, about life itself, and also about the supernatural. Somehow the vastness of space, the clarity of stars, and the unknowable processes of galaxies grab our imagination in a powerful way. This does not necessarily lead to questions of deities, but rather to our place among the vast and complex unknowns. For example, Lucretius invites contemplation of the heavens to inspire freedom from all constraints (such as religion). Ironically, for Lucretius, seeking vast unknowns can simultaneously turn our vision inward into a realm of peace.

However, in Plato, Timaeus says “Had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered.” For Timaeus, then, humans seek definitions. Words define our borders, which in turn, also allows us to approach the supernatural.

Imagining the non-existence of space is impossible for me. It would be as if the earth had no water. I am not sure if the stars exist solely to spark our imagination, or if they are meant to serve some higher purpose. All I know is that time spent looking at the heavens is never wasted.

Over the next few weeks, this blog will host a variety of astronomical images. All of the images and information come from Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer. We are indebted to Richard for compiling these wonderful images to further spark our imagination. A few textual citations from ancient astronomers will be sprinkled throughout. We hope you enjoy.

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

 

- The Andromeda Galaxy (M 31) is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy being only 2.5 million light years (mly) from Earth. This nearby galaxy is a huge aggregation of stars, gas, and dust which allows us to study all the features of our own galaxy that we cannot observe because we are inside it. Although Andromeda is the largest galaxy of the local group, it may not be the most massive. Recent findings suggest that the Milky Way Galaxy contains more dark matter, implying that it is much denser than M 31. Observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006 revealed that M 31 contains one trillion stars, several times the number of our galaxy (estimated at 300 to 400 billion). The Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way, and the two are expected to collide in about 2.5 billion years. A likely outcome of the collision is that the galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy - a common event in large galaxy groups. The rate of star formation in the Milky Way is much higher than the Andromeda Galaxy. The rate of supernovae development in the Milky Way is also double that of the Andromeda Galaxy. This suggests that M 31 experienced a great star formation phase, but is now in a relative state of quiescence, whereas the Milky Way is experiencing more active star formation.


 

Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

- M 101 Pinwheel Galaxy (NGC 5457) is a very large, relatively nearby, face-on spiral galaxy. M 101 is located in the constellation Ursa Major, at a distance of about 27 million light years from Earth as determined from the Hubble Space Telescope observations. M 101 is a large galaxy with a diameter of 170,000 ly, comparable in size to the Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy is remarkably asymmetric due to the tidal forces from interactions with its companion galaxies, with its core considerably displaced from the center of its disk. Another remarkable property of this galaxy is its large number of star-forming H II regions. H II regions are enormous clouds of high density molecular hydrogen gas, ionized by large numbers of hot, bright, young stars forming within them.


 

Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

- The Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51, NGC 5194) is one of the most conspicuous and best-known spiral galaxies in the sky. M 51 is located in the constellation Canes Venatici about 28 million light years (mly) from earth (distance estimates ranging from 15 and 35 mly). M 51 is interacting with its much smaller neighbor, NGC 5195. Visually, the two systems appear to be actually connected. However photographs of the system reveal that they are not connected as the dark dust lanes of the large spiral curve in front of the companion. It is thought that a black hole surrounded by a ring of dust exists at the heart of the spiral. The Whirlpool Galaxy reaches high altitudes throughout the northern hemisphere making it an accessible observing target from the early hours in the winter through the end of the spring season.
 

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Code of Law

June 2, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Reading through the list of punishments in Dante's Inferno had a very visceral effect on me. I was thinking about the type of lifestyle that would lead one to create such insane punishments. After putting a little bit of thought into systems of punishment, I decided (squeamishness aside) to investigate other ancient texts that include codes of conduct. Today's blog discusses three of these ancient documents: first, Hammurabi's Code of Laws, then Assyrian pillars and writings, and finally I return to Dante's Inferno.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws is probably the most famous first set of laws. Though it may not have been the first in actuality, it is an example of an an early record of cohesive law. The necessity of these laws indicates two things to me: first, that populations are beginning to seek larger communities in which an unbiased law would, at the very least, be helpful; and second, that creating a universal law seemingly assists the public more than the ruler. Of course, living within a known set of rules is preferable to living with chaos and unknowns. A set law attempts to restrict the ruler from arbitrarily changing their minds, while also outlining neighborly conduct. This, in turn, benefits the ruler because structure would enable them to successfully integrate outsiders into his own kingdom.

From this code comes the famous quote “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In other words, Hammurabi's code is known as a retaliatory code, one in which the punishment attempts to equal the crime. A few examples* of his crimes include:

2 - If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

110 - If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

127 - If any one "point the finger" (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair.)

142 - If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.

143 - If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.

Many of Hammurabi's laws deal with property (land, goods, or slaves). At times strict, and at times generous, they define concrete rules for living among a wide variety of people. This would have been crucial to the success of a kingdom which incorporated many conquered peoples. In my mind, however, the punishments of the accuser or the accused would often end in death, so it seems most wise to avoid accusation altogether.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, to the height of the Assyrian empire which is known for its strength in war. Their vast military specialized in diversity such as: archers, foot soldiers and cavalry. The Assyrian society was known for military exploits and techniques that destroyed walled cities. They gained nearly all of their capital by sacking and looting other cities. Their art and writings coupled strong, gruesome language with brutal pictures in order to boast of their success and also to warn opponents away. Without a coherent law, however, they simply relied on fear and intimidation. Perhaps due to a lack of regulated legal codes, the Assyrian kings found themselves fighting more uprisings than new lands. The uprisings eventually put an end to this regime. Yet, their tablets describing torture and military practices remain.** It is noteworthy to add that the Romans may have incorporated some of the Assyrian warfare model.***

Fast forward a bunch and we arrive at Dante's Inferno. (Yes, I am skipping many many things all of which deserve mention. For another time, perhaps.) I do not claim that Dante knew of Hammurabi or of the Assyrian legacy, per se. However, Dante participates in this conversation by writing another code – although this time, in a narrative form, independent of historical fact. His writings include punishments which fit the crime, much like Hammurabi's “eye for an eye”, and some of which are brutal tortures reminiscent of Assyrian tablets. For example, in the sixth bolgia, Dante punishes hypocrites by having them wear a beautifully ornate cloak of lead. The exterior's weight makes movement unbearably painful. Or in the ninth bolgia, those who caused riotous discord are disemboweled and slit down the middle to echo the rifts they caused in life.

Dante's narrative is another way to chart an incredibly complicated political time in which the Church was divided among itself. In fact, Dante's political ties sent him into exile. In his circular narrative, therefore, Dante inserts members of all walks of life, including church leaders, politicians, merchants, family and friends. He then describes punishments for all of their supposed sins which effectively mapped Dante's view of virtue in the 14th century. It also established a very visual text of punishments for sin. Because strong images create strong memories, these texts demonstrate a way in which graphic punishments and threats have changed or shaped cultures and belief systems.

 

*All laws quoted from the Avalon Project: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp

and for more on Hammurabi's Code, visit: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/4c.asp

** Find a few samples of their artwork here: http://faculty.uml.edu/ethan_Spanier/Teaching/documents/CP6.0AssyrianTorture.pdf

*** For more on warfare, read here: http://www.ancient.eu/Assyrian_Warfare/

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