Saturday, May 2, 2009

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star...

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!

It's probably one of the first nursery rhymes we learned and that we teach to our children and grandchildren...and it's a question that the scientific community still seeks the answers to - what are those wonderful twinkling masses that we can see every time we look to the night sky?

Astronomy, a branch of science that deals with the study of celestial objects like stars and planets and comets and nebulas and black holes, dates back to the earliest civilizations - making it one of mankind's oldest sciences. 20,000 years ago, Neolithic cave dwellers adorned the walls of their caves with paintings of the phases of the moon, shooting stars, and even supernovas. These early observations of movements in the heavens lead to the development of calendars, formed the basis for many early religions, and were critical to the planting of crops and preparation for the changing seasons.

While there is proof that virtually every early civilization from the Mayans to the Egyptions to Aboriginal tribes in Australia had studied the movement of objects in the sky, Greek and Roman cultures, as well as Chinese and Indian cultures are among the many early peoples who developed names for the shapes they saw in the heavens. These constellations, while perhaps a bit difficult to conceive perceptually in comparison to what they were named for, are still used to identify star clusters. Some of the more well known ones are the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and of course, the constellations which lent their names to the signs of the Zodiac - Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn.

In these early times, knowledge was limited to what could be seen with the naked eye, but the refinement of optical lenses and the first use of a telescope to observe the heavens by Galileo Galilei in the early 1600's led to a new age of scientific exploration and discovery that continues today.

As technology has developed exponentially, so has man's desire to understand the universe. Space exploration is no longer limited to what we can see through our telescopes from here on earth. Programs such as Voyager and the Hubble Space Telescope are providing an incredible wealth of information about our universe. We are learning about its creation, expansion and probable demise. We have the ability to study not only the planets in our solar system, but we can ascertain with some probability that there are other planets similar to ours in other solar systems revolving around other stars like our sun. We have discovered galaxies being born, supernovas dying, black holes where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape it, and a multitude of other astronomical wonders that we are still attempting to explain.

We have learned that we are just a tiny speck of stardust in a universe of billions of stars (one source estimates it at 10 to the 24th power -that's 10 followed by 24 zeros!). So the next time you gaze up at the night sky, allow yourself to be engulfed by its sheer immensity, let your mind consider the possibilities, and say a quiet prayer of thanks for the wonder that is our universe!

Now, a somewhat less quiet thank you to the shops who allowed me the privilege of posting some of their astronomy related items to illustrate this article.
Twilight time - TimeAndMaterials
Nightime - TimeAndMaterials
Great Orion Nebula - celestialwonders
Andromeda Galaxy - celestialwonders
Retro Scifi Tech Small Tilting Table Top Telescope - buildersstudio
Leo Constellation WOMENS EGGPLANT Tee - isotope
Pioneer Spacecraft NASA plaque for Aliens T-shirt - isotope

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