Tag Archives: Galileo Galilei

#AdlerWall 01: Write Down What You See

by Shane L. Larson


Have you ever had an awesome thought, maybe on your commute to work, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for your kids to get out of ballet? Did you say to yourself, “I’ve got to remember that! I should write that down.”  Then fast-forward to later that day, and you can’t remember what your brilliant thought was?

Our thoughts are ephemeral things; they come and go like the morning dew. Committing them to long term memory requires concerted effort, which if neglected, sees the thoughts evaporate away, lost forever. Fortunately, humans have invented a device to preserve our fleeting meanderings of mind: paper.

"Study of a Tuscan Landscape." This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Paper is very often the central medium in creative endeavours like art and science. Paper is used by creative minds to explore their craft and store their musings for the future. One of my favorite examples is the earliest known sketch by Leonardo da Vinci himself. “Study of a Tuscan Landscape” was a sketch made in 1473 of the Arno Valley. Ink sketched on a piece of vellum, just 15cm x 22cm. Made more than 570 years ago, it deftly captures the master’s keen eye for looking differently at the world. His mind was exploring perspective and a view from on high, his pen capturing the meander of the Arno River and the hulking walls of Castle Montelupo. His interest and observations would continue, and just more than 25 years later would produce another stunning piece, “Bird’s Eye View of a Landscape”, his rendition of what he might see if he could soar over the Tuscan landscape with the birds.

"Birdseye View of a Landscape." Leonardo da Vinci's imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

“Birdseye View of a Landscape.” Leonardo da Vinci’s imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Another favorite record of mine is one of Galileo’s early sketches of the moons of Jupiter. When he first turned his telescope to the sky, Galileo was faced with many visions of the Cosmos that had been previously unimagined. Among these was the discovery that Jupiter had its own system of moons.  This was no sudden and easy realization — when he first saw them he thought they were stars that just happened to be near Jupiter. But over time Galileo saw them trail along with the planet. He embarked on a concerted and ongoing series of observations that when linked together revealed the truth: the little lights were moving around Jupiter. This was no easy feat! From Earth, the orbits of the Galilean moons are, more or less, edge-on. We don’t see them tracing out little circles on the sky — instead we see them slowly moving left to right along a line. The innermost and fleetest of the moons, Io, takes 1 day and 18 hours to make a complete circuit. The outermost moon, Callisto, shuffles along at a slower pace, retracing its steps every 16 and a half days.

Galileo's notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

Galileo’s notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

To ferret out these patterns requires an organized effort. If you simply watch Jupiter through a telescope multiple times, you will see the moons move, even over the course of an evening. That is exactly what Galileo did, and each time he peered through the eyepiece, he sketched what he saw. The sketches presented in Sidereus Nuncius (Galileo’s book, that announced his discoveries to the world) are very clean and organized, and familiar to astronomy enthusiasts. But I think some of Galileo’s original notes are more interesting, because they capture a very human side of the endeavour. My favorite is now in the collection of the Morgan Library. This is a record of Galileo’s observations of the Moons of Jupiter in January of 1611, when he was trying to work out how long it took each moon to circle the planet. The beauty of this is the scrap of paper is an unfolded envelope. I imagine Galileo peering through his telescope, and on the spur of the moment deciding to watch over several days to work out the orbits, so he grabbed what he had at hand. The next night, having fully intended to record it in his proper notes, he used the same scrap of paper because time had gotten away from him that day when he met an old friend at the market. And so on — it’s the way science goes, constantly intermingling itself with everyday life.  I love this old envelope — it gives new meaning to the old adage of doing science “on the back of an envelope.

Though-out history, paper has been the medium by which we preserve knowledge. It has evolved into a fine art-form in the production of books, which harbor the collective memory of our species. But the mass production and archiving of knowledge on paper in libraries, universities, and bookstores has a much more personal face at the level of individual people: their notebooks.

Notebooks are, quite often, as personal to people as the shoes or t-shirts they choose to wear. Some people swear by spiral bound notebooks (often adorned with pictures of kittens or flaming electric guitars) that you remember from grade school; others have moved on to composition books. Artists often have sketchbooks or watercolor books. Others swear by cahiers of the Moleskine style, or by tiny pocket notebooks they can keep in their pocket next to their smartphone.

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household. This is only a small sample -- I didn't even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household — every person has their own personal preferences. This is only a small sample — I didn’t even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

I have many notebooks lives. My scientific life is contained in my research notebooks. These are an ever increasing number of 3-ring binders, with loose-leaf pages within. This includes my own musings and calculations, graphs, articles I have read, print-outs of code, and pictures of my whiteboard. My amateur astronomy life is captured in a series of paired notebooks — one set are my astronomical diary, capturing the times I was out, who I was with, the weather where I was, the telescopes I used, and what I saw those nights. I also have a sketchbook where I try to make some kind of sketch of everything I see. They aren’t great, but they are a record of what I saw, of what I noticed.

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

But my constant companion, which my friends will recognize, is my idea notebook. I carry it with me everywhere. I use 5” x 8.25” hardback journals like Moleskines or Insights. I strongly prefer blank pages, but I’m often using lined journals because I’m a sucker for “special edition” journals, connected to pop culture elements, like superheores or famous novels. I like this size because it is small enough to carry around, but is also large enough to have some space to work.  I almost always have it in one of several treasured covers from Oberon Design.

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheaval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

I put everything in my idea journal — sketches and Zentangles, calculations and research ideas, travel notes, movie ticket stubs, diary entries about cloud formations, notions for Lego models, ideas for posts here at writescience — anything I might not want to forget.  It all goes there, so I don’t forget it. The funny thing about memory is the act of committing it to paper means I often remember what I was thinking later, even without looking it up!

The #AdlerWall implores you to write down what you see — so you can remember, and so you can relate your experiences to someone else, even if that someone is only a future version of yourself.  Try slipping a small notebook in your pocket, and make little jots down in it as you explore the suggestions on the #AdlerWall.

But be warned: sometimes, when faced with a new, empty notebook, with pristine pages unsullied by pen or pencil, it is hard to write that first thing. This is Fear of Ruining the Notebook. Not everyone suffers this phobia, but I have it in spades, as do many others. So to combat it, I have developed a strategy: I have a standard ritual I start with every notebook, initially marking and adorning some pages. This uniquely identifies every notebook as mine, and it gets me past those first panicky moments when faced with pure, blank pages.  The ritual goes like this:

  • Inside the front, on the leaf connected to the front end-page, I write my name and email address — there is often a place for this.
  • On the bottom of that page, I usually put a sticker of… something. NASA missions, national park stickers, anything I happen to have.
  • On the inside end paper, along the seam, I write my name in black sharpie, as well as a glyph I made up in my youth to mean “me”
  • On the other side of the end leaf, facing the first true page of the notebook, I put a portrait painting of Carl Sagan, with the opening paragraph of Cosmos.
  • On the first page of the notebook, I write some kind of stylized intro graphic that says, “New Moleskine.”

I don’t know WHY I do all these things; I probably don’t need to do them all, but I do. If I were superstitious, I would say it would be bad luck to NOT do these things. But irrespective, it breaks in the new notebook and I can start using it!

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks -- part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks — part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

If you are following along and doing the #AdlerWall project, you will likely find you need a way to capture what you see in the world around you. We of course live in the future — your smartphone can capture what you see in pictures, or voice memos, or electronic text.

But you may find something comforting and liberating in using paper to record your journey. Anything can work, as Galileo’s unfolded envelope shows. But just in case you think its too embarrassing to show people your bird sketch on the back of a lunch napkin, or you’re afraid you’ll lose the sunrise inspired haiku you wrote on the back of a coffee shop receipt, maybe a little pocket notebook is a good starting point — something smaller than your phone, that you can always have on hand in your purse or back pocket.

It doesn’t matter what you do; just that you do it.

See you out in the world — I’m the guy sitting on the curbside, making rubbings of leaves I found on the sidewalk. In my notebook. 🙂


This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.


Cosmos 7: The Backbone of Night

by Shane L. Larson

Science is a powerful method to know the world. Without science, the Cosmos would be an impenetrable mystery to us; we would live our lives without the benefit of knowing how to make fire, how to cross the water or fly in the sky, or how to combat fevers and illness. Early in our education, we are often instructed in The Scientific Method.  I remember long hours as a student, filling up lab notebooks with precisely organized and formatted records of investigations into the mysteries of Nature, followed by my professors mercilessly docking me points for not completely writing out an equipment list or forgetting to record a step of the procedure in my notebook — points lost for not following explicitly the formal steps listed in The Scientific Method. I’m sure those days of bleeding red ink on my lab notebook taught me to be more careful in my scientific records, but they did little to inspire me about the way to do science.

One of my lab notebooks, from my undergraduate days.

One of my lab notebooks, from my undergraduate days.

Now, many years into my career as a professional scientist, I still think I practice The Scientific Method, but in reality I find the process of science is more organic, moving forward on leaps of inspiration, mixed together with careful planning, fraught with confusion and difficulties, and punctuated with debate and argument. Science is a very human endeavour, and as such has all the elements of every story ever told: ignorance, curiosity, hubris, depression, discovery, elation, and ultimately wisdom.  One such story, spanning more than 400 years, is about how we have come to understand our own galaxy.

The Milky Way rising over Mt. Hood and Lost Lake, Oregon. [Imaged by Ben Canales, http://www.thestartrail.com ]

The Milky Way rising over Mt. Hood and Lost Lake, Oregon.
[Image by Ben Canales, http://www.thestartrail.com]

From remote dark skies, far from the bustling life of modern cities, you can see the Milky Way, arching overhead. Nebulous and shimmering, it has evoked wonder and questions for many thousands of human generations. While today the nature of the Milky Way has passed from our scientists into the collective knowledge base of our species, there was a time when the Milky Way was a tremendous mystery upon which we hung stories, myths and legends. The peoples of the Indian sub-continent called the Milky Way Akash Ganga, the Ganges of the heavens. Life along the Ganges is intimately tied to the river, and it is sacred to the Hindu people; perhaps staring at the vast gossamer river in the sky touched some deep chord in their minds, igniting the idea that we here on the Earth are connected to the sky.  The !Kung bushmen tribes of the Kalihari desert call the Milky Way The Backbone of Night, because it looks like a ghostly arch, soaring overhead and holding up the sky.

Galileo Galilei.

Galileo Galilei.

Our knowledge of the Cosmos is like an archway — it is built up stone by stone, and supported by keystones, essential pieces of knowledge that define how we think about Nature. The Milky Way has come to be a keystone, a focal point of attention that has guided us in our long journey to understanding the Cosmos. In our understanding of the galaxy, that journey began 400 years ago with a 45 year old professor from Padua, Italy, who turned a spyglass to the heavens — Galileo Galilei.  His telescope was a simple device, of poor imaging quality compared to the cheapest pair of binoculars you might find at a discount store today. But it could show more than just the eye alone.  Peering through his telescope at the diaphanous mist of the Milky Way, Galileo was presented with a staggering wonder — the galaxy was comprised of innumerable stars, packed so closely together that the eye could not resolve them, instead seeing only a nebulous fog. The Universe had suddenly gotten much larger.

There is a bit of folklore that in those early days, Galileo doubted what the telescope was showing him. How could he be certain that what he saw when he looked to the skies was real, and not some phantasm born of his mind’s inability to interact with his new-fangled optical device? To answer this question, he dutifully did what Galileo is known so well for — he conducted an experiment. Setting up a coin across a courtyard, he viewed and sketched the coin through his telescope, noting every detail he could see.  Then, leaving his telescope behind, he walked right up to the coin and sketched it again viewing it from a distance of only a few inches. After much examination, he convinced himself the telescope was not lying to him, and all the wonders he had seen were real.

A Venician silver scudo, from around the same era when Galileo was learning to use his telescope.

A Venician silver scudo, from around the same era when Galileo was learning to use his telescope.

He published his first telescopic observations of the heavens in 1610, in a book called Sidereus Nuncius — “The Starry Messenger.”  Despite having convinced himself of the truth, he had less luck convincing others of the utility of the telescope.  He complained in a letter to Kepler, 

“…I think, my Kepler, we will laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the multitude.  What do you say to the leading philosophers of the faculty here, to whom I have offered a thousand times of my own accord to show my studies, but who with the lazy obstinacy of a serpent who has eaten his fill have never consented to look at planets, nor moon, nor telescope?  Verily, just as serpents close their ears, so do these men close their eyes to the light of truth.  These are great matters; yet they do not occasion any surprise.

Even in Galileo’s day, communicating science was hard.  But the Age of Enlightenment was soon upon the world; modern astronomy was born in this time, a direct descendant of Galileo’s stargazing.  Telescopes began to proliferate. Larger telescopes were built, new designs were invented, observatories were constructed, and astronomers were appointed.  We began to plumb the heavens, trying to see all that we could see.

As we looked deeper into the sky, we came to understand that there was far more to the Milky Way than even Galileo knew. The first person to map the Milky Way was William Herschel.  In 1784, Herschel used his telescope to count stars in every direction on the sky.  From those studies, he produced a map, eerily accurate to what we know today, concluding that the Earth and the Sun are near the center of a flat disk of stars (you can read a detailed description of Herschel’s method in this paper).  But as telescopes scanned back and forth across the sky, observers would occasionally see things that were not stars — new, dim fuzzy objects.  Some were round, some were oblong, some were completely irregular. The looked for all the world like the Milky Way looked before Galileo’s telescope — thin, white, diaphanous fogs among the stars. They were generically named nebulae, Latin for “clouds.”  Herschel himself catalogued more than 2400 of these in an epic survey of the sky conducted with telescopes he built.

(L) William Herschel, (R) Herschel's first map of the Milky Way.

(L) William Herschel, (R) Herschel’s first map of the Milky Way.

This first reconnaissance of the sky brought to the forefront of our minds questions we had asked before: how big is the Cosmos? where did it come from? what is our purpose in it? At this time, most astronomers had decided that the entire Universe was the Milky Way. They had no reason to believe (nor ability to measure) that distances in excess of thousands of lightyears were reasonable.  Thus all the nebulae, since they were parts of the Universe, must reside within the Milky Way itself.  One prominent view of the day was the “nebular hypothesis,” which supposed that stars and planets formed from gravity acting to collapse vast clouds of gas. The detection of nebulae among the stars of the Milky Way could explain where all the stars in the galaxy came from.

Today we now accept that the nebular hypothesis is correct, but in the 19th Century there were those who certainly did not. Among those who disliked the notion was William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse. He believed that like the Milky Way, the nebulae should resolve themselves into innumerable faint stars, if you could just look with a powerful telescope.  So in 1845 he built one of the largest telescopes the world had ever seen.  More than six feet in diameter, the structure of the telescope had to be held up by a castle wall, and was colloquially known as “The Leviathan of Parsonstown.”

(L) Lord Rosse, (R) The Leviathan of Parsontown (next to its support wall at Birr Castle).

(L) Lord Rosse, (R) The Leviathan of Parsontown (next to its support wall at Birr Castle).

One of the great truths of telescopes is that bigger telescopes can see more, because they collect more light.  By all accounts, the Leviathan could see more than any telescope of the time — it revealed details in the nebulae that had never been seen before.  In 1845, shortly after it was built, Lord Rosse pointed the Leviathan toward a distant nebula, just under the handle of the Big Dipper, known as Messier 51 (“M51”). In a moment that must have been utterly breathtaking, Lord Rosse realized that he could see spiral structure in the nebular cloud. He promptly declared that M51 was an “island universe,” another galaxy like the Milky Way.

(L) Lord Rosse's first sketch of M51 in 1835, showing the spiral structure seen through the Leviathan. (R) A modern HST image of M51 [NASA/ESA].

(L) Lord Rosse’s first sketch of M51 in 1835, showing the spiral structure seen through the Leviathan. (R) A modern HST image of M51 [NASA/ESA].

This ignited “The Great Debate” in astronomy, which persisted for more than 80 years before it was resolved.  Arrayed against each other were the scientists who believed the Milky Way was the entire Universe, versus those who contended that the Milky Way was but one of a vast number of other galaxies.  Both sides had good arguments that supported their position, but there was no way to decide that one group was more right than the other — the observations simply weren’t good enough.  To resolve this debate we had to know two things: the size of the Milky Way itself, and the distance to the spiral nebulae.  Astronomers noodled this over in vain for decades to no avail.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt at her desk [Harvard College Observatory].

Henrietta Swan Leavitt at her desk [Harvard College Observatory].

In the end, the solution to the problem was discovered in 1912 at the Harvard College Observatory by astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  She had discovered a type of star now known as a Cepheid variable that changes its brightness in a regular way over time (a variable star). Leavitt demonstrated that for Cepheid variables, if you could accurately measure the time it takes the star to get dim then bright again, you could use the change in brightness to determine the distance to the star.  This was the first, robust method for using telescopic observations of stellar brightness to determine distances through the galaxy; Leavitt’s discovery transformed astronomy.  Sadly, Leavitt died of cancer at the age of 53 in 1921, before The Great Debate was resolved.

Hubble at the eyepiece of the 100" Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson [Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images].

Hubble at the eyepiece of the 100″ Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson [Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images].

Knowing that bigger telescopes see more, the Mount Wilson Observatory built a 100” telescope overlooking Los Angeles in 1917; it would be the largest telescope in the world for more than 30 years.  In 1924, Edwin Hubble announced that he had used the 100” telescope to detect Cepheid variables in several spiral nebulae. Using Leavitt’s discovery, he was able to determine the distance to the spiral nebulae, discovering that they were vastly farther away than astronomers had imagined.  The Universe was suddenly a very big place!

How big? The Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 lightyears across — it takes light 100,000 years to travel from one side to the other. The disk, which we see edge on as the faint river of light in the night sky, is on average only about 10,000 lightyears thick.  By contrast, Hubble was observing the Andromeda Nebula, which is 2.5 million lightyears away!  It would take 25 Milky Way galaxies laid edge to edge to span the gulf of space to our closest neighbor, and there are  galaxies further still.  While these vast distances startled astronomers, The Great Debate was, for all practical purposes, resolved instantly. The data was clear and unambiguous. Leavitt’s great breakthrough in the discovery of the Cepheid variables was a singular event — it resolved an argument that had plagued and befuddled us for almost a century.  Astronomers shook hands, dusted off their chaps, and moved on to new, equally difficult mysteries, suddenly revealed by uncountable galaxies far, far away.

Our current best understanding of the structure of the Milky Way, as seen from above the galaxy. [Image by European Southern Observatory].

Our current best understanding of the structure of the Milky Way, if it could be seen from above the galaxy. [Image by European Southern Observatory].

How do we study those galaxies that are so far, far away? We build bigger telescopes. We look at the Milky Way up close, and assume galaxies far away are similar. We spend time being confused. We argue. We make inspirational breakthroughs, and eventually, we understand.  This is the nature of science.


This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

Knowing something about everything

by Shane L. Larson

During the early 1970’s, a yellow cab crawled up Park Avenue in New York City. By all accounts, this was an innocuous happenstance, repeated thousands of times a day before and since.  But this cab ride was special, because it gave rise to one of the greatest treaties in human history, the so-called “Park Avenue Treaty.” The signatories were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who agreed that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).  The treaty was famously referred to by Clarke in the dedication to his novel, Report on Planet Three, which read “In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer”.

Arthur C. Clarke (left) and Isaac Asimov (right), the signatories of the Park Avenue Treaty.

The treaty is indicative of one of lost truths of those by-gone days — Asimov was widely regarded as one of the finest communicators of science, though he is most often remembered for his science fiction (if you haven’t read the original Foundation Trilogy, stop reading this now and go find a copy; this blog post will be here when you get back).  He became a proficient and popular science writer in the years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, when there was widespread concern about the “science gap” between Americans and the rest of the world (an earlier incarnation of the current growing science gap in our country).  Asimov’s writings were wide ranging, accessible to broad audiences, and enormously popular. Kurt Vonnegut once famously asked Asimov how it felt to know everything.  Asimov replied that he was uneasy with his reputation for omniscience.

Despite his play at modesty, Asimov’s reputation was not ill-deserved.  He was, by all accounts, a polymath — a person whose intellect and expertise span a vast number of areas in the entire body of human knowledge. There have been many polymaths throughout history, many of their names are well known in our popular culture.  Perhaps the most famous, was Leonardo da Vinci, widely regarded as one of the finest mechanical geniuses and artists who has ever lived. Apprenticed as a young boy to the artist Verrocchio in Firenze, Leonardo was immersed and trained in artistic and technical skills of the day: drafting, metalwork, drawing, sculpting, and painting.  Leonardo’s skill manifested itself even at this early age.  Anecdotal stories tell that when he began painting under the tutelage of Verrocchio, the young Leonardo’s skill was so great that Verrocchio swore to never paint again.  In his life, Leonardo produced stunning works of art that have survived and are revered today — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man.  One of my favorites works is the first sketch that we are certain is a work of Leonardo, of the Arno Valley from 1473. It is a simple line sketch that somehow captures the effervescent beauty of that far away Italian countryside, though I have never been there.

“Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the young Leonardo sitting on a grassy hillside, his pen and paper in hand, recording the image of his home in quick lines and shades. As the shape of the Arno Valley emerged and the walls of the Castle Montelupo sprang up on the page, his mind must have wandered in the fertile ground of imagination, exploring new seeds and thoughts planted by the sun and the landscape. Leonardo was not one to let seeds go untended. His genius and creativity are well known, spawning not only some of the most famous works of art in western culture, but also straying to ideas about flight and helicopters, harnessing the Sun’s energy by concentrating it, and the possibility that the Earth’s surface moved (something geologists today call plate-tectonics). No topic was too mundane, nor of little interest to Leonardo. He was a true polymath.

It is a funny fact of human nature that we discourage the behaviour that we so often value.  Polymaths dominate the ranks of the most revered scientists of all time: Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Feynman, Dyson. But in academic circles, polymathism is discouraged. University professors are often encouraged to be narrow minded, to focus their attention and efforts in narrow back-waters of science so they are the world’s single expert in very rigidly defined and narrow boxes of knowledge.  Somewhat surprisingly then, the most awesome applications of human imagination to science are efforts that are highly interdisciplinary, requiring expertise from hundreds of scientists in an astonishing variety of fields.

Approximately a hour to the west of Vinci, on the outskirts of Pisa, one of the greatest miracles of the modern age is taking shape.  Astronomers and physicists, in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers and laser technologists, are constructing an enormous, multi-kilometer long laser interferometer called Virgo (http://goo.gl/maps/CYzrE).  A similar, but smaller observatory called Geo has been constructed in the farmlands outside of Hannover, Germany (http://goo.gl/maps/Ozlco).  The Japanese are constructing another facility called Karga underground at the famed Kamioka Observatory in western Japan.  Two larger observatories have also been built in the United States, called LIGO — one in the high desert of eastern Washington near the Hanford Reservation (http://goo.gl/maps/C1QEj), and one in the verdant cypress forests of Louisiana near Livingston (http://goo.gl/maps/pifQn).

These massive scientific instruments are the cousins of interferometers that have been used in physics laboratories for the past century, simply enlarged by a factor of 4000 and instrumented with state of the art lasers, seismic isolation systems, the world’s largest vacuum system, 30,000 environmental sensors and one of the most powerful linked computer networks ever created for scientific analysis.  The goal is to detect one of the holy grails of physics: gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are a completely new way of looking at the Universe, not with light, but with gravity.  Virtually everything you know about the Cosmos — everything you’ve ever been taught, everything you’ve ever read in a textbook or seen on the news, has been discovered with light using telescopes.

The Hubble Space Telescope (left) extends our vision deep into the Cosmos, providing views like this one of the Carina Nebula (right), showing us a secret birthplace of stars.

It is a time honored tradition that has passed down to us from another great polymath, Galileo Galilei who built the first telescope in 1609 and wrote about his experiences the following year in the celebrated Sidereus Nuncius (”The Starry Messenger”).  The descendants of that first modest spyglass are simple telescopes you might use in your backyard, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope has taught us much about the Cosmos and our place in it.  But there are new frontiers to be explored by changing our perspective.  The detection of gravitational waves will revolutionize our understanding of compact astrophysical systems. We will be able to directly probe the interior structure of neutron stars (the densest objects known) as they tear themselves apart in titanic collisions; we will watch black holes merge and ringdown, revealing their size and spin; we will see stars plummeting in chaotic spiraling orbits around black holes that will map out the gravitational field to reveal the structure and shape of the hole.  And, if we are lucky, we may even detect the faint echoes of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, whispers across time from an era 400,000 years earlier than any ordinary telescope will ever be able to see.

It was Einstein himself who discovered the idea of gravitational waves in 1916, but he almost immediately discarded the notion of detecting them because the physical effect that has to be measured was, in his estimation, beyond our abilities. Fast-forward to the modern era, and technology has changed.  Not just a single technology, but many technologies.  The instruments we build to detect gravitational waves are a complex synthesis of ideas requiring people of broad mind and discipline.

The enormous arms of these interferometers had to be laid out by our best construction contractors, because the arms are long enough that the curvature of the Earth matters!  The 1 meter diameter vacuum pipes had to be manufactured then spiral welded without any leaks or cracks over the entire 4 kilometers of the instrument arm.  Thermal engineers had to design expansion baffles on the beamtubes that contract and expand with the heating and cooling of the arms with the rising and setting of the Sun. Seismologists and meteorologists and electrical engineers had to create a network of some 30,000 environmental sensors that monitor and report on the health and environment of the observatory.  Exquisite isolation engineers had to build suspension systems capable of filtering out vibrations from everything — people walking down the hall, the echoing tremors of ground motion on the other side of the world, and the rumble of car tires on a highway ten miles away.  Computer scientists and network engineers have designed a computing and data acquisition system that has thousands of individual links, stores and processes data, and delivers that data to a collaboration of nearly 1000 scientists spread around the world.  Master optical engineers and laser physicists have built a laser injection and control system that takes as input a single infrared laser beam, circulates it over 1600 kilometers during 400 trips up and down the vacuum beam line, and brings the laser light all back together to measure minuscule changes in distances that herald the arrival of gravitational wave signals from remote corners of the Cosmos.

LIGO is an awesome machine, whether you are looking down one of the 4 km arms (left), or staring into the guts of the computer system interlinking the instrument and all of its vast sensor network (right).

Standing at the vertex of one of these great instruments, staring down the arm to the distant end stations 4 kilometers away, it is easy to be amazed by the ingenuity of our scientists and engineers — large teams who have butted heads, argued, designed, tested, and ultimately built the most sensitive scientific instruments our species has ever created.  A pool of talented people who had the where-with-all to imagine every possible problem that might be encountered along the way and design a solution.  Talented people who encountered unforeseen problems, ferreted out the cause of the trouble, then built a solution that allowed us to continue down the long road toward discovery.  These great machines, and ultimately the discoveries we make with them, are a testament to their dedication and perseverance, a legacy as great as that of Newton, and Huygens, and Leonardo.  We polymathed our way to these instruments, not through the intellect of a single person, but through the linked abilities of a vast team of people spanning multiple decades of work.  As a result of those efforts, we find ourselves poised on the brink of discovery: breathless with anticipation, and rightfully proud of our accomplishment.

The LIGO-Hanford interferometer, seen from the air.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by two things. The first is the awe-inspiring example of what we can engineer through sheer ingenuity and perseverance. Instruments like LIGO will fundamentally change the way we view the Cosmos, pushing us to look beyond the simple prejudices imposed by the limitations of our physical senses and listen to the grandeur of a Universal symphony we’ve never been able to hear before. The second is that this machine is only the beginning of so much more than just astrophysics. New technology and new insights always flow back to society and are used in startling and unexpected ways, propelling our young species forward. This was true with Apollo, and as many others have pointed out, is true for LIGO.  The LIGO laser technology is already making its way into the carbon composites industry where it is being used to test aircraft parts. Einstein@Home (like it’s big sister, Seti@Home) was one of the first projects to use your home computer to do scientific crowd-computing while your computer was sitting idle during Monday Night Football, turning the world into a vast supercomputer. LIGO’s advanced laser control systems are demonstrating the precise methods needed to shape and control lasers in applications ranging from laser welding, to high precision laser cutting systems, to advanced laser weapon systems.  None of this was intended, but it all sprang from the same fertile ground — the seeds of ideas planted and nurtured from an exquisite mix of ideas stirred together with reckless abandon.  Polymathism in the large.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, the joy in our accomplishment is pierced by an unerring certainty that we should be doing more of this.  We need more polymathism in the world, on scales both large and small.  We should unfetter our young scientists, and let their minds stray to the far reaches of wonderfully crazy ideas and fantastic imaginings about what our future could be.  It is hard to imagine that good things can and will result from allowing such freedom, particularly in trying times of economic woe and political discord.  It is even harder for the vanguard of scientific leaders (the “greybeards”, as I call them) to encourage big expansive thinking among our young scientists when the great discoveries could easily overshadow our own seemingly meager contributions to the state of human knowledge; the egos of scientists (despite their outward bravado) are fragile. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need more polymaths, not just to inspire us by charging down the frontiers of discovery, but to address serious problems with new and creative connections and solutions that narrow box thinking will never discover.  The world has serious problems, and we need creative thinking to address those problems.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, I wonder what Leonardo would have thought if he was right here with me?  I can imagine him sitting here next to me, with a parchment and a pen in hand, sketching the long lines of LIGO’s arm, the scrub desert of eastern Washington and the distant shadow of Rattlesnake Mountain, and my mind strays into imagination, wondering all the things that could be.

First Light

by Shane L. Larson

In the fall of this year, I turned 43 years old.  Four days after my birthday I participated in a long standing tradition that has been handed down through many generations.  It began 403 years ago, on a cool autumn evening in Padua, Italy. Galileo Galilei, then 45 years old, had crafted a simple telescope after hearing of the “spyglass” invented by the Dutch.  Galileo was the first person to turn his telescope toward the sky, letting starlight flit through the shaped lenses and, for the first time, fall on human eyes.  First light.  Galileo beheld a Cosmos full of unexpected wonders, startling revelations, and new mysteries.  Sweeping the faint glow of the Milky Way, easily visible in those bygone days before urban lighting, he discovered it was comprised of innumerable stars — more than he could sketch!  He could see roughness and surface detail on the Moon, which up to that time had been thought to be perfectly smooth. Much to his surprise, he discovered that Venus had phases, like the Moon. And perhaps most importantly, he saw bright points of lights orbiting Jupiter — Galileo was the first person to discover other worlds in the Cosmos.

One of Galileo’s early telescopes.

Today, the heavens are more well known than they were 400 years ago, but still filled with grandeur, mystery, and awesome spectacle. Astronomy is an endeavour pursued by professionals, but also enjoyed by millions of amateurs worldwide, enabled by easy access to telescopes that Galileo would have loved to spend a few long evenings with, sweeping the heavens.  For professionals and amateurs alike, we still celebrate the ritual of a telescope’s first night out under the stars.

First light. It is a magical time for any telescope — the first time it gathers starlight, and rather than let that light be absorbed by the Earth and pass into oblivion, it redirects it to a human eye, carrying the tales of the far away Cosmos.  On a cool autumn evening, nestled down amongst the mountains of northern Utah, I turned a new telescope skyward for the first time. First light.  The telescope was one of my own making, which I built based on the wisdom of others who had built telescopes before me, much like Galileo.  I named it Cosmos Mariner.

My two telescopes. “Equinox” on the left, and “Cosmos Mariner” on the right.

Mariner is much larger than Galileo’s original telescope, and its optical elements were fabricated with higher precision than Galileo could have hoped to achieve in those early days.  All told, Cosmos Mariner will gather about 500 times more light than Galileo’s original telescope, and can see objects about 25,000 times fainter than Galileo.  And what awesome spectacles we beheld!

The first sight of the sky was the double star Albireo.  The “head” of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, Albireo lies nearly overhead as darkness falls at this time of year. It is a beautiful stellar pair, notable because it shows a striking amount of color — one star glows with a deep, yellow hue, while the other appears as a brilliant blue.  My six year old daughter dutifully climbed the ladder, participating in this special night but perhaps not really knowing what to expect.  She leaned over to the eyepiece and peered in.  Through the gathering darkness, I heard her exclaim: “Pop! They have colors!”  I could have quit then; First Light was a success.  I often think back to that first night when Galileo turned his telescope to the sky for the first time.  What did he look at?  Was he by himself, or was someone there with him to share in the wonder and the spectacle?

The double star, Albireo (beta Cygni).

Our next stop was nearby, off the wing tip of Cygnus.  There, nestled against the backdrop of the star studded Milky Way, a telescope will reveal the faint, gossamer light of the Veil Nebula.  Peering through Mariner’s great eye, we could see faint tendrils and thin tracers of light, woven together in an intricate web of gas.  The Veil Nebula is part of a much greater complex in the sky called the Cygnus Loop.  It is a supernova remnant — the gaseous remains of a star that died in a titanic explosion some 8000 years ago.  It is a doleful reminder that the stars also die, but that the Cosmos is beautiful and delicate even during the throes of destruction.  The death of the stars is the beginning of new birth in the Cosmos — supernova explosions create the complex chemical elements that make up worlds like the Earth and beings like you and I.  The gas and dust that we see today as the Veil Nebula will someday merge with other vast clouds in the Milky Way and collapse under gravity’s inexorable pull until it explodes with the birth a thousand new suns.

The eastern portion of the Veil Nebula.

Our last stop of the evening was high in the eastern sky, nestled just below the neck of Pegasus.  Turning Mariner’s gaze toward that distant corner of the sky revealed the diaphanous glow of a galaxy that astronomers call NGC 7448.  Mariner revealed a faint, glowing oval of light with a brighter orb of luminosity embedded at its center — a spiral galaxy, not unlike our own home, the Milky Way.  There are other brighter galaxies in the sky to see, but on this night I wanted to see this galaxy, because the light from that distant island of stars left its home 100 million years ago, departing for Earth at a time when dinosaurs still roamed our small blue world.  It astonishes me still that I can just now capture that light tonight, drinking in the photons through my eyes, and converting them into evanescent memories.

The spiral galaxy, NGC 7448, 100 million light years away from Earth.

The telescope is magic in its rarest and purest form, a device brought to life by human ingenuity and creativity.  Telescopes expand our vision beyond the small confines of our world to distant corners of the Cosmos, showing us vistas that challenge the boundaries of ordinary human comprehension and force us to think deeply about our place in the grand design.

The great secret of telescopes is that they all will show you more of the Cosmos than your eyes alone will.  The cheap pair of $10 binoculars you have under the seat of your car is a far superior astronomical instrument than Galileo’s original telescope.  For the cost of two or three months of your cell phone bill, you can own a 6-inch telescope that will reveal thousands of distant galaxies, swirling nebulae, the enigmatic surface of Mars, and the beautiful choreography of binary stars.  Large telescopes, like Mariner, are becoming more and more common, providing views that would have made Galileo swoon.

Take a moment tonight, and go out and look at the stars.  Turn off your back porch light, and drink in the starlight that has been hurtling toward the Earth since before you were born.  Make your own First Light, and ponder the deep connection we share with the Cosmos.  And if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, let me know; we’ll pull Mariner out and celebrate in the starlight together.