Making the world go around

By Rebecca Priestley In Science

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Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus, 1580

A lively two-act play, And the Sun Stood Still, forms the heart of Dava Sobel’s latest work of science history, A More Perfect Heaven. The drama (and comedy) takes place in northern Poland in 1539 and opens with the bedridden Bishop of Varmia vomiting into a basin. He is attended by Nicolaus Copernicus, an aged mathematician and physician and a church canon. The bishop blames the kitchen staff for poisoning him – “That shifty-eyed cook must be a Lutheran sympathiser,” he rages – but recovers enough to demand that Copernicus choose between his “harlot” housekeeper concubine and the “heretic” Lutheran mathematician he’s harbouring.

The first section of Sobel’s book is not quite as much fun. This historical narrative, packed with names, places and dates, establishes Copernicus as a Polish Catholic cleric who used mathematics and precise astronomical observations to develop a revolutionary new idea of the universe. Copernicus’s idea that the Earth moved around the Sun, rather than the opposite, attracted the attention of young German mathematician Joachim Rheticus, who urged Copernicus to publish his ideas. Copernicus, though, was concerned that his heliocentric universe would attract trouble from “babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject” and who would distort passages of scripture to censure him.

After resisting publication for many years, Copernicus died, aged 70 and after suffering a debilitating stroke, with the printed pages of the book in his hand. The third section of A More Perfect Heaven traces the impact of his book. “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,” read the Greek maxim on the title page of his Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. As expected, says Sobel, “On the Revolutions provoked the ire of religious authorities almost from the moment it appeared.” Copernicus was denounced by the Pope’s theologian as “a braggart and a fool”. In 1616, a panel of 11 theologians declared his teachings “heretical”, because they contradicted scripture, and philosophically “foolish and absurd”. It took the work of later scholars, such as Galileo and Newton, before his heliocentric view was finally accepted.

In this latest Sobel work of popular science history, it was the central play that stood out as a highlight. I would love to see it performed.


Alma Telescope

Part of the Alma telescope array. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Alma, the world’s largest and most powerful radiotelescope – it collects light from a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can’t see – went online last month. In the quest for clear skies unpolluted by light or water vapour, the telescope is located at an altitude of 5000m in the remote high desert of northern Chile. The computers that process the data Alma collects are housed in the world’s second-highest building, where technicians can work for only six-hour shifts before risking altitude sickness; astronomers work at a site further down the mountain.

When fully operational, Alma (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) is expected to return pictures with a resolution 10 times greater than the Hubble telescope. Astronomers have already shown that the most vigorous bursts of star formation took place 12 billion years ago, when the universe was less than two billion years old, and a billion years earlier than previously thought.

Two University of Canterbury scientists, Loretta Dunne and Steve Maddox, have won a competitive bid to use the telescope. “For ages, astronomers have tried to piece together how galaxies form stars from clouds of gas, but only by looking at the end results – the stars,” says Dunne. “Alma allows us to ‘see’ the gas in galaxies in exquisite detail for the first time, giving us the full picture of how galaxies form and evolve.”

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