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Observer's Notebook


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Letter from a Contrarian



Bruce Dorminey

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Ken Rumstay

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: “The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution” by Dennis Danielson; Walker & Company, 2006


Rheticus' name will be unfamiliar to all but those who have more than a passing acquaintance with the development of astronomy, from Copernicus to Kepler. He is frequently mentioned as Copernicus' only student, but his role in the revolution that removed Earth from the center of the universe was absolutely critical.

Scientific revolutionaries are often romantically imagined to have worked in isolation: Newton's discoveries during the plague year at Woolsthorpe come to mind, as does Einstein's famously singular push from special to general relativity. The truth is usually much more pedestrian. Newton might never have written the Principia Mathematica without Edmond Halley's urging and generous patronage. And nearly two centuries later, Darwin might never have published On the Origin of the Species unless prodded by Alfred Russel Wallace's paper on natural selection.

For Copernicus, the push to publish came from his disciple, Joachim Rheticus, a young scholar from Wittenberg who traveled to Frauenburg, where the aging astronomer was working as a canon in the cathedral there. Rheticus had come to learn of the new astronomy, after first learning of Copernicus’ unusual system of the universe from Johannes Petreius, a publisher in Nuremberg. Rheticus became Copernicus' pupil and stayed with him for two years. Dennis Danielson's new work, The First Copernican, is the first popular treatment of Rheticus' life.
Copernicus’ epochal De revolutionibus did not emerge from a cultural or intellectual vacuum, but biographical detail of Copernicus’ life is scant. Rheticus’ story fills a gap and Danielson’s telling of the story will enrich your understanding of this pivotal period in the history of science.

Danielson, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, stakes out his thesis in the prologue to the book, entitled "No Rheticus, No Copernicus." Rheticus' visit brought with it the first serious scholarly interest in Copernicus’ new view of the universe. More importantly, it brought him the personal contact and enthusiasm of a younger man to persuade him to undertake the enormous task of committing himself to a full treatment of his sun-centered system and all its complex mathematical consequences.

The details of Rheticus' life are perhaps not as important as his global role in the Copernican revolution. But the details, chronicled in conversational biography by Danielson, also help to paint a portrait of the times in which both Rheticus and Copernicus lived. Understanding this Zeitgeist is vital to understanding the revolutions in thought that emerged from it. Danielson neatly develops the historical context, particularly the Reformation, and how it created a landscape within which Copernicus' ideas would be received. Luther and his disciple, Melanchthon, rewrote the system of education in Germany by encouraging the study of God's world of nature, along with God's Word. Melanchthon took a personal interest in Rheticus, and encouraged both his education and his travels, with the selfish interest that Rheticus would become a lifelong professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg.

Danielson's treatment of the characters in this story bring to life the events that carry the tale forward. We feel the loneliness, both academic and personal, felt by the aging Copernicus. We are touched by the interest and friendship shown by the young Rheticus.
Copernicus’ reluctance to publish can be ascribed in part to the fact that he was busy with secular duties in the cathedral, but also because he sensed that his radical ideas lacked an audience. Our hearts swell as Rheticus gives him that audience and emboldens the old man to push forward with a grueling writing task that took, quite literally, the rest of his life. Later in the story we sympathize with the conflict Rheticus feels between his duty to return to Wittenberg to teach, and his desire to continue his travels and his own research into triangles (trigonometry). We are appalled when he becomes enmeshed in a lawsuit over his inappropriate sexual liaison with a male student, and is forced to flee or face persecution.

Danielson’s biography of Rheticus walks a line between a chatty popular account and a serious scholarly work of research. It is not an easy read due to the level of detail and, occasionally, the level of the vocabulary. It may be just beyond accessible for the casual reader who lacks a background in the history of science and astronomy. However, it will certainly be on the required reading list for any serious student of the times, whether by profession or avocation.



Friday, December 08, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: "Dark Side of the Moon" by Gerard J. DeGroot: New York University Press, 2006.


The late Baltimore newspaper editor Henry Mencken wrote diatribes in the 1920s that still make good reading today. They were not only well-written, but scholarly. Gerard DeGroot’s diatribe on the Apollo Program is also well-written, but can hardly be described as “scholarly.” Ironically, this professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. seems to know very little about his subject as a whole.

The Apollo program was far broader than the lunar landings. His book is a historical study, but one relevant today, in view of the renewed American “Vision for Space Exploration,” which will initially be focused on a return of humans to the Moon.

DeGroot wastes no time in labeling NASA, its supporters and its contractors as: “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues” and “tyrants.”

When addressing NASA space policy, he speaks of “myths carefully constructed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and sustained by NASA ever since.” He also deems the Apollo program to be a “brilliant deception, a glorious swindle.” And his book’s central thesis is: “Putting men in space was an immensely expensive distraction of little scientific or cultural worth.”

DeGroot seems unaware that there was much more to the Apollo Program than the lunar missions, and of what the Apollo Program, properly defined, eventually produced. In fact, “Apollo” also included the Gemini and Skylab programs, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). Furthermore, Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 were purely earth-orbital.

Some statistics are called for in light of DeGroot’s emphasis on the “obscenely huge” cost of the lunar missions, described as “a $35 billion dollar happy pill administered to a generation of depressed Americans.” The $35 billion is too high, but let’s let it stand and view it in context.

The very last Apollo mission (ASTP) was flown in 1975. According to the 1976 World Almanac, the Welfare outlay (not including Social Security), was $54.8 billion. By contrast, the total of all NASA budgets for all programs, including Apollo, from 1959 through 1975, was $58 billion. The Fiscal Year 1975 NASA outlay was $3.3 billion, while the Fiscal Year 1975 Food Stamp Program ran to $5.0 billion. Had all fifteen years of NASA expenditures been diverted to the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare and the American Food Stamp Program, they would have fallen short of funding these worthy causes for one year.

In chapter 2, DeGroot digresses into a bit of Freudian psychoanalysis. He writes: “Rockets are erotic. The small, slender, phallic tube . . . “ and on he continues. Space flight he writes thus “appeals to most boys, some men, very few girls, and almost no women.”
For DeGroot to include such statements in his text is almost beyond belief. He has evidently never heard of the many women who have actually flown in space, a list of whom would fill much of this page. He has for example apparently not heard about Colonel Eileen Collins (United States Air Force, retired), who not only flew on four shuttle missions but commanded two of them. Nor does he mention shuttle crew member, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. These omissions especially dishonor women such as Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster, on a mission that would have had her teaching students from space.

DeGroot quotes President Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, as calling the Apollo Program ”great entertainment,” and ”scientific hocus-pocus,” which is “not gonna give us much scientific knowledge.” Having been involved in space research since 1959, I can label these views nonsense. I published a defense of the Apollo Program in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1996; obviously, we learned a lot about the Moon itself.

The first major discovery was that it is not a primitive, un-evolved, cold body, but one with a complex history of volcanism and crustal formation lasting some 2 billion years and perhaps continuing even today. This implied at once that the Earth probably had an analogous early history. The Apollo results thus immediately gave us a new frame of reference to understand our own planet. The Moon itself may have been formed by a giant impact on the primordial Earth, a theory which, if correct, could further changes in our own understanding of Earth.
Professor DeGroot might find comparative planetology irrelevant to human welfare, but Landsat is one of Apollo’s forgotten legacies. The Landsat program was a series of imaging satellites in placed into earth orbit, described by the late Senator William Proxmire ---hardly a space enthusiast --- as perhaps the most valuable program NASA had ever sponsored.
For three and a half decades, the Landsat images have been used to map deforestation, volcanic activity, geology, mineral deposits, and floods. They have been used to study environmental controls of Ebola Fever in Africa and Schistosomiasis in China. Landsat has been termed by University of Maryland professor of geography Sam Goward, as “one of the greatest scientific achievements of the latter twentieth century . . .”.

What does this have to do with Apollo? Starting with Gemini 3, the Gemini and Apollo astronauts took 70mm color pictures of the Earth as part of planned terrain and weather photography experiments. Widely published, they triggered interest in high-resolution color imaging.

They stimulated the U.S.Geological Survey to propose an earth resources satellite, which eventually became Landsat. The U.S.G.S. Director, W.T. Pecora, said that the concept was conceived “largely as a direct result of the utility of Mercury and Gemini orbital photography to earth resource studies.”

Beyond Landsat, the Apollo Program triggered explosive progress in remote sensing as a whole. NASA’s earth-orbiting Skylab mission in the 1970s, carried a radar altimeter, which proved capable of mapping earth’s underwater ocean topography. This demonstration at once stimulated development of global radar mapping of the ocean floors from orbit. This, in turn, has led to remarkably complete and accurate geologic maps of the Earth’s surface.

Even in the face of these achievements, DeGroot argues that “ the American space program has been caught in a state of purposeless wandering ever since Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. No one knew what to do next . . . .”.

In fact,we knew exactly what to do next. NASA had detailed plans for additional lunar missions using the Saturn V and the Apollo hardware, and we could have established a lunar base by 1975. We are now starting over, but it will take years to recover the lost momentum.

Setbacks aside, the American space program has produced a golden age of astronomy from the Hubble Space Telescope and its counterparts to the exploration of Mars, starting with the 1976 Viking landers and continuing today with NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers. And NASA has played a leading role in the construction of the International Space Station, which despite its critics is a technological triumph. Some “wandering”!

Dark Side of the Moon
may have entertainment value, but readers wanting to learn about the real Apollo Program will have to look elsewhere.



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Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)