Journey through the Universe: A Gallery of Observations

By Cowen, Ron | Science News, December 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Journey through the Universe: A Gallery of Observations


Cowen, Ron, Science News


Like many places since Sept. 11, the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., feels like a different world. Security guards wearing latex gloves use batons to comb through handbags, searching for suspicious packages or powdery substances.

In one of the first-floor exhibition halls, it's also a different world, but an uplifting one. An ambitious display has replaced a long-time exhibit about the nature of stars.

"I was never really thrilled with it," says curator David DeVorkin. "It was OK. It told why we go into space, but it was outdated quickly. And it wasn't inspirational."

In developing a new astronomy exhibit for the 4,600-square-foot gallery, DeVorkin hit upon a unifying theme: the instruments built to observe the cosmos. With the Smithsonian's vast collection of astronomical equipment, both old and new, "we can show the real thing," says DeVorkin.

"Unlike most museums that are dedicated to the process of science, we're interested in the products, the instruments that form the legacy of the discoveries," he adds.

Although it was a theorist, Copernicus, who made the revolutionary claim in the early 1500s that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of the solar system, the idea didn't catch on for decades, notes DeVorkin. Only late in the 16th century, when the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe developed planet-tracking tools and made the critical observations, was Copernicus proved right.

"When you build new tools of perception, you discover new universes," notes DeVorkin. "It's always been that way, it's always going to be that way. And it also means that there's no definitive answers [to the nature of the universe].

"So, what I hope is that people who come through, rather than accumulating book knowledge by memorizing tables and facts, will get an impression of what it was like to observe the heavens [at a particular moment in history], what the problems were facing the observers, and how [they went] from asking one set of questions about the universe to the next."

Here's a sampling of the exhibit, which opened in September and will remain permanently at the Air and Space Museum:

Looking with the naked eye

Before 1609, when Galileo began using a brand new invention called the telescope, humankind's perception of the cosmos was limited to what could be seen with the naked eye. It was natural to perceive Earth as the center of the universe, with a transparent, starry sphere rotating around it.

The earliest astronomers used several tools to chart the position of objects in the sky and to predict where the sun, moon, and certain stars would move. With the heavens serving as both timekeeper and navigational aid, such knowledge was of much more than scholarly interest.

One measuring device, the astrolabe, had two parts. Its back contained a moveable sighting arm and a scale for measuring altitude, while the front had a flattened map of the heavens that helped to calculate the future position of objects.

An astrolabe featured in the exhibit dates from A.D. 1090 and has several interchangeable plates, each engraved with the celestial coordinates for a different latitude. Pointers on the top plate indicate the locations of 22 bright stars. Like a modern star-finder chart, the top plate rotates to show where these stars would lie at different times of the year.

With this device, astronomers and others could predict when the sun and certain bright stars would rise or set on any given day.

As measuring devices became more and more precise, old notions about the universe began to crumble. For example, Brahe's measurements--even though they were made with the naked eye--were fine enough to reveal that comets move through the same region of space as the planets. That destroyed the idea that planets occupied a special place that no other object could penetrate. …

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