When times are tough, it’s always therapeutic to think about my puny problems in the context of vast time and space.
What difference does it make in a universal sense that I have a miserable cold and that my 401(k) account has shrunken like a plump grape dried into a wrinkled old raisin? Planet Earth will continue its predictable path around the sun, and stars will adorn the night sky for at least a few more generations of earthlings.
Now comes a new chance to indulge in wonders-of-the-universe therapy on a local and global scale.
While war rages, hunger gnaws and jobs disappear, some 125 countries are celebrating 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. The U.N. General Assembly proclaimed the initiative to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical use of the telescope by Galileo Galilei.
Locally, the festivities kick off Thursday, Jan. 15, with an astronomy open house at Fridley High School. From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. the program will feature shows in the Minnesota Planetarium Society’s ExploraDome as well as telescope demonstrations, outdoor stargazing (dress warm!) and hands-on activities such as exploring a scale model of the distances to objects between the sun and Pluto.
Then, from 7:30-8:30 p.m. the ExploraDome and planetariums around Minnesota will link up for a “domecast” tour of the universe from the Hayden Planetarium in New York, led by Carter Emmart, director of Astrovisualization for the American Museum of Natural History.
“We’ll be connecting audiences in the Mankato Planetarium, Mayo Planetarium in Rochester, Como Planetarium in St. Paul, and in Medellin, Colombia, at the Parque Explora with our visitors in Fridley,” said Sally Brummel, education outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Planetarium Society.
No registration is required for the program at the Fridley school, 6000 Moore Lake Dr. W. Sponsors and participating organizations also include the Minnesota Astronomical Society, University of Minnesota Astronomy Department and public schools in Fridley, St. Paul, Rochester and Mankato.
Elsewhere, the International Astronomical Union is leading the world-wide observances with ambitious plans intended to build on the notion that studies of the heavens can be an inspiration for peace on Earth.
“All humans should realize the impact of astronomy and basic sciences on our daily lives, and understand better how scientific knowledge can contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society,” the Union said in its opening declaration of the celebration.
In Galileo’s time, though, astronomy wasn’t always a peaceful endeavor. The Italian physicist and astronomer was accused of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church because he theorized that the Earth moves around the sun.
Organized religions and big scientific egos of the time insisted that the Earth was the center of the universe.
Building on ideas others were trying, Galileo assembled glass disks in a contraption that could help him manipulate light to magnify distant objects. His telescope introduced eyes on Earth to the first observations of individual stars in the Milky Way, Jupiter’s big moons and other astronomical wonders.
More profoundly, his discoveries added compelling support for then-controversial theories of Nicholas Copernicus that the Earth moves around the sun, not the other way around.
The U.N. described Galileo’s telescope as “a momentous event…that triggered a scientific revolution which profoundly affected our worldview.”
Now, sophisticated telescopes in space and on Earth continue to probe the origins of life and other mysteries of the universe.
Galileo, no doubt, would be amazed and gratified over the tributes awarded to his work 400 years later. In 1633, he was forced to recant his sun-centered theory of the universe, and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest on orders from the pope.
The modern-day church has formally admitted that Galileo was right. Indeed, Vatican telescopes contribute to today’s astronomical discovery.
And the Vatican is celebrating this year too.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Galileo, saying he and other scientists had helped the faithful better understand and “contemplate with gratitude the Lord’s works,” the Associated Press reported.
In May, several Vatican officials will participate in an international conference to reexamine the Galileo affair, and top Vatican officials are now saying Galileo should be named the “patron of the dialogue between faith and reason.”