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Celebrating The International Year Of Astronomy

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Celebrating The International Year Of Astronomy


Celebrating The International Year Of Astronomy

Celebrating The International Year Of Astronomy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Galileo first peered through his astronomical telescope toward the heavens 400 years ago, spotting mountains on the moon and discovering the moons of Jupiter. Astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the special events planned this year to commemorate Galileo's discoveries.


From NPR News, this is Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. In 1609, Galileo set about building his own telescope and improving its magnification with each new prototype. He soon turned it toward the Moon. At the time, common knowledge said that the Moon was really perfectly smooth; it was a spherical body in wisdom passed down from the times of Aristotle. But what Galileo saw and drew for his book, "The Starry Messenger," was a moon that looked a whole lot different to what people were saying it was. It was pretty similar to the surface of the Earth, the ups and downs and mountains and ridges and dips, and he even figured out how tall one of those mountains was applying geometry to its shadows and illuminations, sort of triangulating there. And later he went on to discover many, many more things with his telescope.

Well, this year, 400 years later, people all over the world are celebrating Galileo's first exploration of the heavens with this: 2009: International Year of Astronomy. There are lots of events planned and lots of ways for you to get involved. We'll hear more from my next guest. So, let me introduce him now. Mario Livio is the author of the new book called "Is God a Mathematician?" He is also a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and that's where they control the Hubble Space Telescope. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Livio.

Dr. MARIO LIVIO (Senior Astrophysicist, Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute; Author, "Is God a Mathematician?"): Sure, Ira, my pleasure.

FLATOW: How did all this get started?

Dr. LIVIO: Well, it all got started - when does it get started?

FLATOW: How did it get started?

Dr. LIVIO: Well, it got started already. I mean, there have been events already happening...


Dr. LIVIO: I mean, this all started as soon as the year 2009 started. So, there have been events that already took place. We have had unveilings of an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, by the Chandra Observatory, by the Spitzer Space Telescope. We have events happening all over the country. There are events organized around planetariums, around science centers, and a whole host of other things are still to come.

FLATOW: Now, you have a contest going up...

Dr. LIVIO: Correct.

FLATOW: About - you can - we can get to control which picture the Hubble Space Telescope takes a picture of. Tell us about that.

Dr. LIVIO: Yeah. So, this is - there was a declaration of 100 Hours of Astronomy, which will take place April 2 to 5. So, what we did is on our Web site, which is, we have put six small images, low-resolution images, of six objects, none of which Hubble has ever observed extensively, and people can vote on which one they would like Hubble to observe during those 100 Hours of Astronomy. And I'm happy to tell you that we already have more than 131,000 votes, and the vote ends on March 1; you can still vote only 'til March 1; and then the target that will be selected will actually be observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, and we will release that image.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Mario Livio. So, you have a choice of a galaxy, a nebula, things like that?

Dr. LIVIO: Right. There are three nebulae, actually, one which represents a star-forming region - a region where new stars are being born - two nebulae which represent dying stars - stars like our sun in the late stages of their life - and two galaxies, one seen almost face-on, a spiral galaxy; one seen, essentially, edge-on - you know, when you see the very narrow side of a spiral galaxy; and one is actually an interacting pair of galaxies - two galaxies that are in the process of collision one with the other.

FLATOW: I have to tell you, though, Mario, they look like your standard, everyday galaxies. They don't look anything spectacular there.

Dr. LIVIO: You mean the individual ones...


Dr. LIVIO: Or the ones that are colliding?

FLATOW: The ones that were - the six choices you gave us. You don't give us any of those wonderful pictures we've seen on the Hubble.

Dr. LIVIO: I want to tell you something, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LIVIO: All the wonderful, wonderful pictures Hubble has already looked at...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LIVIO: And one of the key criteria in choosing these images was to choose images that Hubble really has not looked extensively at. But I guarantee to you that the picture that will be - the target that will be chosen will look quite spectacular after Hubble looks at it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is Hubble healthy now?

Dr. LIVIO: Well, Hubble is unfortunately not that healthy. I mean, of course, it has, you know - the Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 is working, and this is the workhorse with which this image will also be taken, and it has two other instruments that are working. But overall, Hubble is awaiting a servicing mission, which is currently scheduled for May 12 of this year.

FLATOW: Yeah. I think it was something - it's already been postponed a bit, I think.

Dr. LIVIO: Yeah, it has been postponed. Originally, it was supposed to be in November, but then there was a board of electronics that failed, and that the idea was - well, it didn't fail completely. It has...


Dr. LIVIO: Two sides; it has a redundant side, but it was determined that we would like to have a new one in - you know, with both sides working. So, this is what postponed the mission.

FLATOW: Tell us about what some of the other activities are going on this year for people interested in astronomy.

Dr. LIVIO: So, I mentioned this unveiling event; this unveiling of the picture of the galaxy M1O1 was taken with the three great observatories - Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer - and the recent unveiling of that, that happens in 116 institutions. These are museums, science centers and so on and so forth. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is going to have a big event related to Galileo's telescope and so on. The recent event called Vision of the Universe, where we created 12 panels that shows how our views of the universe have changed during the past 400 years, and those will be shown in 40 libraries across the country. The recent activity called From Earth to the Universe, where a variety of images will be shown in part in airports, in other places and so on.

FLATOW: You know, I think that the Hubble is probably NASA's biggest success so far. People know more about the Hubble than - they don't even know that they've seen - that they're looking at pictures taken by the Hubble many times.

Dr. LIVIO: Well, I will not disagree with you on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LIVIO: Look, I mean, Hubble has done something that I honestly feel that no other scientific experiment before it has done. It has literally taken the excitement of discovery and it's no longer just - it doesn't just belong to the scientists. It has brought that excitement into the homes of people all across the globe. So, people - you can see now Hubble images on things ranging from covers of rock albums to books on music, books on - that describe museum exhibitions and so on. So, the You Decide, this choosing the target by the public, really fits very, very naturally into that, because we now allow the public to even participate in the choice of the target that Hubble will look at.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And just to remind everybody, they have 'til March 1st - does that include March 1st?

Dr. LIVIO: Yes, it includes March 1st.

FLATOW: To vote for which of the six objects they'd like to have the scientists look at. Let's see if we can get a call in here. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Mary in Rockville, California. Hi, Mary.

MARY (Caller): Yeah, that's Vacaville, California.

FLATOW: Vacaville.

MARY: Yes, thank you very much. Yeah, I have this favorite quote that I always have available here because it describes so much about people and science. Galileo complained in a letter to fellow astronomist(ph) Kepler - and I have the exact quote here. May I read it?

FLATOW: Please.

MARY: He said, when I - of course, translated from Italian - but he says, when I wanted to show the professors at Florence High School Jupiter's satellites through my telescope, they wanted neither to see them nor the telescope. These people think no truths are to be sought after in nature, but only in the comparison of texts.

FLATOW: Hmm. He was...

Dr. LIVIO: Yes...

FLATOW: He's complaining about people not interested in science or maybe people were afraid, religious wise, to look at...

Dr. LIVIO: Not just not interested in science. You see, I mean, one of the things that Galileo did was - until his time, there was a very distinct difference between things that were heavenly and things that were terrestrial; they were supposed to be entirely different worlds. But this was not just scientifically, but also as a culture, you know, as a mythology and so on. And part of the things in what Galileo did was - as you started, you know, your program by saying he showed that the Moon is just like the Earth. You know, it has a rugged surface; it reflects light from the sun, you know, just - and the Earth does the same thing and so on. So, there is really no difference. You know, they're all governed by some universal laws, you know, and so on. Similarly, with the moons of - around - satellites around Jupiter, people were saying that it cannot be that the Earth will be moving around the sun, because it has the Moon moving around it. And yet then he showed, aha, here is a celestial object, it has four moons moving around it, and it's still moving around the sun.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. OK, Mary, thanks for that nice quote.

MARY: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Thanks. Have a good weekend. 1-800-989-8255. You know, I think a lot of people think that Galileo discovered the telescope, that he was the first to invent it.

Dr. LIVIO: Yeah. No, Galileo did not discover the telescope. I mean, the first telescopes were built in the Netherlands, and in fact, there were even people who already wanted to have patents on them and so on. Galileo heard from a friend about this new instrument, and once he was convinced that the instrument exist, he started experimenting himself...


Dr. LIVIO: With a variety of lenses until he built his own telescope and then perfected it.

FLATOW: I think sailors were the first to invent them for use in the ocean there. I'm not quite sure.

Dr. LIVIO: That may have been the first use of the telescope, yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let see if we can go to the phones. Let's go to Jeff in Cleveland. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, there. I'm curious as to who the photos belong to after the Hubble takes them. Are they public domain? Do they belong to NASA? Who?

Dr. LIVIO: Yes, the photos are in the public domain, like - every observations that the Hubble Space Telescope takes, usually the data belong to the observer that proposed the observation for one year. This is to allow the observer, you know, to reduce the data, to process the data and to publish the result in some scientific journal. But after that, the data become in the public domain. In this particular case, because these images were done with the public outreach in mind, these data will be in the public domain immediately.

FLATOW: We also - we taxpayers paid for it.

Dr. LIVIO: Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We should own it.

Dr. LIVIO: Of course.

FLATOW: All right, Jeff. Thanks for calling.

JEFF: Thanks. Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. So, what happens - do you have a special event every month, from month to month, until the end of the year?

Dr. LIVIO: Yes. Throughout the entire year, there will continue to be events. You know, I mentioned a few of them. There are others. There will be discovery guides for the International Year of Astronomy. These will involve, every month, things related to the object of the month. All the planetariums, all the observatories, will have a variety of talks, Webcasts, and all kinds of activities like that.

FLATOW: Talking with Mario Livio, author of the book "Is God a Mathematician?," on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Tell us a little bit about math and Galileo. He actually could tell from the shadows on the Moon how high some of those peaks were?

Dr. LIVIO: That's right. He did determine, you know, the height of a mountain on the Moon from the shadow. You know, at first, it took his genius to understand that the fact the he saw those points of lights that were widening, that that really looks like tops of mountains, you know, catching the sunrise. And then, of course, he used the geometry to do that, but he did much more than that. I mean, Galileo made this bold statement that the entire universe is written in the language of mathematics. And this was extraordinary for his time, because ,I remind you, Ira, this is a time when, you know, all these things we call laws of physics or laws of nature, nobody formulated them yet. And yet, he was, you know, bold enough to say, you know, the universe is written in the language of mathematics, and if you want to understand it, you have to understand the characters in which it is written, which are all kinds of geometrical figures, for example.

FLATOW: He also illuminated the Moon, didn't he, in saying that that was sunlight that was on there, shining on the Moon.

Dr. LIVIO: That's right, and - but also light from the Earth, he said. This was also very, very nice. He saw that even the side of the Moon that, you know, is not fully illuminated by the sun also gets some light. So, he then said, you know, in the same way that we gets light from the Moon here on Earth, the Moon actually gets some Earth - some light from the Earth shining on the Moon.

FLATOW: So, the reflected light bounces off the Moon, too.

Dr. LIVIO: That's right.

FLATOW: And he also observed suns spots, did he not?

Dr. LIVIO: That's right. He observed sun spots - well, he observed many things, really, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Dr. LIVIO: You know he observed, of course, Jupiter; he observed the Milky Way galaxy. But he also observed suns spots; that's right. And even there, he wrote something that was very, very, interesting, where he discovered the sun spot had to be on the surface of the sun and not something moving around the sun, as others thought. And he explained this by this phenomenon that we call foreshortening, you know, that - when you have something that is near the edge of the sun, it looks a little bit thinner than when it is, you know, near the center of the disc of the sun. And that's how he determined that these were on the surface of the sun.

FLATOW: And we have a question coming in from Twitter from MTAdder(ph) who says, how accurate were his moon mountain measurements?

Dr. LIVIO: His moon mountain measurements were OK; they were not fantastic, but they were OK.

FLATOW: So, were they within an order of magnitude? Were they 50 percent off? Or...

Dr. LIVIO: No, I think they probably were within a few tens of percent accurate.

FLATOW: Did he just make one measurement and stop at that? Or did he continue - try to make some more?

Dr. LIVIO: No, he did not make too many measurements of heights of things on the Moon, because to really make a measurement of that, you need something that is really tall, a very tall feature and so on.


Dr. LIVIO: But he did, of course, many other types of measurements. For example, he did determine, you know, the period in which these satellites of Jupiter move around Jupiter.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And he had just basic, rudimentary mathematics to deal with.

Dr. LIVIO: Hardly even that. I mean, he mostly knew geometry. I mean, you know, he very seldom actually used numbers. He was a very good student of Archimedes, whom he really admired. So, he used proportions.


Dr. LIVIO: You know, he didn't care so much about the actual number, but he used proportions.

FLATOW: And they named a little tiny crater on the Moon after him, didn't they?

Dr. LIVIO: Yes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LIVIO: Well, you know, there are many things now called...

FLATOW: You'd think he could get a bigger crater than that.

Dr. LIVIO: You know, the - yeah, but you know, we called the Galilean Satellites.

FLATOW: Right, right.

Dr. LIVIO: I mean, there are enough things named after Galileo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So, you're not complaining about that. He's doing OK. OK, I want to thank you very much, and your book, "Is God a Mathematician?," is out on bookstores now?

Dr. LIVIO: Yes, it is.

FLATOW: And we wish you a very good luck with it. Mario, thanks and good luck. Are you going to be appearing in any of these events that you're talking about?

Dr. LIVIO: I certainly hope so, yes. We plan on also - on some classes. We'll do some activities. We will send speakers to classes across the countries. I'm in some of those and so on.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much and good luck to you.

Dr. LIVIO: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Mario Livio, author of "Is God a Mathematician?" He also a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescopes Science Institute in Balehmore(ph), as they say down there. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

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