“Stormy Night,” an Evening of Meteorology at Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch

Please note that we’ll be having a meteorology program at the Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch on Monday night, June 21st, at 7:30 PM.  Sounds like they’ll be doing lots of fun and educational weather-related stuff which the whole family can enjoy.

Also, if weather permits we’ll be pulling out Kathleen Clay’s big reflecting telescope.  I tested it out on the Moon last night, and the view was pretty impressive!  In fact, I think it’s quite likely we’ll have two telescopes set-up for all you star-gazers.    

Hope to see you there!

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Famous Astronomer Nicholas Copernicus Reburied After Scientists Use DNA to ID Remains

In yet another neat DNA story, scientists have recently used the building blocks of life to help identify the remains of the famous Renaissance Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who, with his theory of the heliocentric or sun-centered universe, is often credited with starting the scientific revolution.

Alas, poor Copernicus died shortly after De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), his seminal work, was published.  During Galileo’s day, when findings with the telescope began to add weight to Copernicus’ ideas, On the Revolutions was deemed heretical by a then very conservative Roman Catholic Church.  

But with no little irony (at least in view of the Church’s later action against the work), Copernicus was buried on sacred ground beneath the floor of the cathedral of Frombork, located in Northern Poland.  Long since rehabilitated by the Church and honored for his landmark contributions to modern science, there had periodically been efforts to locate his remains there, but these had failed.  Furthermore, previous efforts to locate his tomb had made it clear that it would be difficult to distinguish Copernicus’ remains from many other anonymous burials. 

Nonetheless, in 2005 some bones were located which looked especially promising, since a facial reconstruction as well as the presence of some scars on the skull seemed to match up nicely with surviving contemporary portraits.  But the excavators still weren’t absolutely sure they had found the famous astronomer.

That’s where the DNA came in.  As it turned out, some volumes from Copernicus’ personal library, including the Magnum Romanum Calendarium (A Proposal for a Calendar Revision), had made their way to Uppsala University in Sweden — and this particular volume contained some human hairs from which DNA could be recovered.  (And as a librarian and long-time book collector, I can tell you from personal experience that lots of stuff can end up in books!)

Anyway, analysis established that some of the hair DNA matched the DNA from the remains recovered at Frombork and voilà:  proof that Copernicus’ remains had definitely been found.

And so it was that just a few days ago a man once branded as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church was honorably reinterred               

If you’re interested, Greensboro Public Library has a number of books on Copernicus, including:  Copernicus by Jack Repcheck; The First Copernican:  Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution by Dennis Danielson; Uncentering the Earth:  Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William T. Vollmann; and On the Shoulders of Giants:  The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, edited, with commentary, by Stephen Hawking. 

We’ve also got some juveniles such as Copernicus:  Founder of Modern Astronomy by Catherine M. Andronik and Nicolaus Copernicus:  The Earth is a Planet by Dennis Brindell Fradin.

Here’s a Macabre Auction Find: Two of Galileo’s Fingers & a Tooth

I thought this was an interesting, if morbid, story:  two of the famous scientist Galileo Galilei’s fingers and one of his teeth recently turned up at an auction

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was of course the famous Italian scientist who is probably best remembered for the first telescopic observations of the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus, and his support of the Copernican system which placed the sun at the center of the universe.  For his obstinate defense of the latter, he was eventually tried for heresy by the Catholic Inquisition. 

In 1737, some ninety-five years after his death, Galileo’s remains were exhumed for reburial in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, and it was at this time that three fingers, a tooth, and a vertebra were removed by some of his admirers.  The whereabouts of one finger and the vertebra had been known, but the other fingers and the tooth had been lost for over 100 years until their recent rediscovery.    

Plans are underway to put the newly found relics on display at Florence’s Institute and Museum of the History of Science.  Follow this link for the Museum’s description of the recent find.    

If you’re interested, Greensboro Public Library has some books about Galileo, including Galileo’s New Universe:  The Revolution in Our Understanding of the Cosmos by Stephen P. Maran and Laurence A. Marschall (2009); The Earth Moves:  Galileo and the Roman Inquisition by Dan Hofstadter (2009); Galileo’s Daughter:  A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel (1999); and Michael Sharratt’s Galileo:  Decisive Innovator (1996).

More Halloween Season Goodies: Bats, Bram Stoker, Telescopes & Poe

Bram Stoker

Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight series may well be more popular these days, but check this out:  the great grand-nephew of Bram Stoker (1874-1912), author of Dracula, the greatest vampire novel of them all, has come out with a sequel to his famous ancestor’s book.

Titled Dracula:  The Un-dead, and written by Canadian Dacre Stoker in collaboration with a New York screenwriter named Ian Holt, the plot of the new novel involves a hunt for a murderous vampire, set against late Edwardian Europe.  Interestingly, Bram Stoker is actually a character in the new book.    

Greensboro Public Library has copies on order, so I imagine we’ll have Dacre Stoker’s new novel soon.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in Bram Stoker, we do have a couple of recent titles, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula:  A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon, edited by Elizabeth Miller, and The New Annotated Dracula.   

We’ve also plenty of other books on vampires.  Just a few of our 2009 titles make a long list:  Blood Promise:  A Vampire Academy Novel by Richelle Mead; The Vampire Archives, edited by Otto Penzler (on order); City of Glass by Cassandra Clare; Night Pleasures by Sherrilyn Kenyon; Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs; The Thirteenth by L.A. Banks; Must Love Hellhounds by Charlaine Harris; Dark Road Rising by P.N. Elrod; and Club Dead by Charlaine Harris.  Search the library’s catalog here for many, many more.

A Vampire Bat

Speaking of vampires, it’s well-known that they occasionally transmogrify into bats.  And, if you’re like me and fascinated by bats (I love to watch them flit around at dusk, and one of my favorite books is Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet), you won’t want to miss our program on bats at the Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch on Monday night, October 19th, at 6:30 PM.

This program will also include a telescope viewing, provided skies are clear, and, though there’s no connection to our Kathleen Clay program, it’s nonetheless a fact that our master weaver of the horror tale, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), was also an astronomy enthusiast.  As a boy, Poe enjoyed using a telescope to study the stars and planets, and one of the last books he published before his tragic death was Eureka (1848), in which he attempted to explain the origins of the universe.

Edgar A. Poe

Lastly, thoughts of Poe and the Fall season always remind me of my favorite of his poems, Ulalume, which begins: 

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere –
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.

The library, of course, has books on bats, astronomy, and Edgar A. Poe.  Let us know if we can help you find something.

Mount Wilson Observatory Threatened by the Station Fire

Once again, Southern California is coping with a large, out-of-control fire — this time near Los Angeles.  Over 85,000 acres have burned so far, and 1000s of homes are threatened and under mandatory evacuation orders.

Word was received yesterday that the famous Mount Wilson Observatory is also in the fire’s path, and late news today indicates that firefighters who have spent the last few days clearing brush and prepping the mountain have been ordered off. 

Here’s yet another article which explains just how vast the Mount Wilson complex is (50 to 60 buildings owned by UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley and Georgia State), as well as the presence of a large number of cell phone, television, and radio facilities on the mountain.   

Also, here’s a blog with frequent updates on the situation from Mount Wilson’s Director, Hal McAlister. 

Lastly, you can get updates from this Sky and Telescope magazine page, which includes a time lapse movie of webcam images of the fire as seen from Mount Wilson — at this writing, the webcam seems to either be down or so busy that it won’t load.   

Mount Wilson includes several very large telescopes and is of historical importance as the observatory where Edwin Hubble conducted research using the 100 inch Hooker telescope — which for many years was the largest in the world — leading to his recognition that the universe is expanding — and ultimately to the “Big Bang Theory” (a turn-of-phrase coined many years later by Fred Hoyle).

Greensboro Public Library has lots of books on astronomy, as well as a few that will no doubt discuss the Mount Wilson Observatory, such as Kevin Krisciunas’ Astronomical Centers of the World, and Stargazer:  The Life and Times of the Telescope by Fred Watson.

We’ve also got a DVD called The Journey to Palomar:  America’s First Journey into Space:  A Film which includes information on the history of Mount Wilson Observatory. 

And please don’t forget, you can find information about the Mount Wilson Observatory in Science Online.

UPDATE:  The latest post from Hal McAlister, which came in at 5:46 eastern time, indicates that “passage of fire across Mount Wilson is imminent and will be fought aerially rather than with ground personnel.”

UPDATE 2:  For the latest updates from Hal McAlister on Mount Wilson please go here.

Jupiter’s Great Black Spot

This is just a brief notice of Jupiter’s Great Black Spot, newly discovered this past Sunday by an Australian amateur astronomer named Anthony Wesley. 

Nobody knows what caused it yet, though some speculate a comet crashed into the planet, as happened in 1994 with the Shoemaker-Levy event.  

The image above was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

If you want to learn more about Jupiter, Greensboro Public Library has a few titles, mainly juveniles, such as:  Mission Jupiter by Daniel Fischer; Jupiter by Ron Miller (juvenile); and Jupiter:  The Fifth Planet by Michael D. Cole (juvenile). 

You can also check this previous post for some of our more recent general works on the solar system, and you’ll find lots of information about Jupiter in Science Online.

Did Galileo Discover Neptune?

Most everybody knows about Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the great Italian scientist who was the first to make astronomical observations using a telescope and deemed a heretic by the Church for supporting the Copernican or Sun-centered theory of the solar system.

But did you know that Galileo also may have been the first man to observe and record the planet Neptune?

Neptune, the eighth planet from the Sun, was not officially discovered until 1846, after its existence was predicted more or less simultaneously by two different mathematicians trying to account for unknown gravitational influences upon the planet Uranus (which is in turn seventh in line from the Sun and was actually not known until 1781, when it was found by the great English astronomer and telescope maker, Sir William Herschel).   

But according to this MSNBC article, Galileo saw Neptune in 1613. 

Scholars have apparently been aware for some time that Galileo observed and recorded the planet when it passed very near Jupiter — whose four brightest moons he discovered in 1610 — but they were previously of the opinion “that he discounted the object as a star and gave it no further thought.” 

However, David Jamieson, a physicist with the University of Melbourne who has been studying the famous Italian’s notebooks, says Galileo actually recorded that Neptune moved against the background of stars — something only a relatively nearby object like a planet would do.

I myself have observed Neptune a time or two in a telescope.  Though it only presented the tiniest disk, it is of a remarkable blue color — as the photo above would suggest.

Most of Greensboro Public Library’s books on Neptune are either juveniles (such as Neptune by Dana Meachen Rau) or too dated to be of interest to adult readers. 

But we do have some more recent books on the planets generally which adult readers may find interesting, such as:  Where Did Pluto Go?:  A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the New Solar System by Paul Sutherland; The New Solar System:  Ice Worlds, Moons, and Planets Redefined by Patricia Daniels; and Is Pluto a Planet?:  A Historical Journey Through the Solar System by David A. Weintraub.  These titles especially take up the recent redefinition of Pluto as a “dwarf” or “minor planet,” which means that Neptune is now considered (once again) to be the outermost planet in the solar system.                

Also, give Science Online a try.  You’ll find some good articles on Neptune in there.