Nov 01

November 2009

What’s Up in the Sky November, 2009
By Peter Burkey

The Sun orbits the earth, making one revolution every 24 hours. No, wait, it’s the other way around. The earth actually orbits around the Sun once per year and the apparent motion of the Sun is due to the rotation of the earth.

The solar system is well understood, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I could make that statement. For a very long time, people thought that Earth was the center of the universe and everything orbited around it. Now we know a great deal about our solar system and how it works. This change in our thinking came about amidst much controversy. It took a long time for science to convince people of the true nature of our solar system.

We live in a world dominated by science. Most of what we take for granted was once the stuff of science fiction. Weather satellites, cell phones, TV, GPS, computers, and many medical procedures are all products of the scientific revolution. Very few people question the fact that these all rely on the theory of relativity for their validity. Yet other scientific theories are routinely labeled as questionable, open to interpretation, or “only a theory”.

We, as a nation, are scientifically illiterate, but the irony is that our economy, technology, and even our security all depend on science. Why is it, then, that some scientific theories are never questioned while others are extremely controversial?

One reason may be that most scientific principals do not conflict with our long-held beliefs. This was the source of our resistance to the Sun-centered theory which did, indeed, conflict with long-held beliefs. But the science supporting controversial topics is the same as that which supports accepted practice.

Another reason is that most people do not know how science works. Science is transparent and self-correcting. Remember cold fusion? The media had a heyday predicting the end of our energy problems. Unfortunately, the experiments performed after the initial announcements did not confirm the conclusions of the original investigators and the theory was abandoned.

Scientists collect data and interpret the results. The conclusions are based on many observations. Anyone is free to do their own data collection and interpretation. Scientific theories are formed when a great number of experiments lead investigators to the same conclusions. The popularity of a theory has no impact on its validity. If you want to question a result, you will be asked to “show me the data”. This is how science works.

This month in history:
Nov. 6: Tycho Brahe observes supernova in Cassiopeia – 1572
Nov. 8: Edmund Halley born. – 1656
Nov. 11: Vesto Slipher born – 1875
Nov. 13: Mariner 9 is first spacecraft to orbit Mars – 1971
Nov. 19: Second lunar landing made by Apollo 12 – 1969
Nov. 27: Mars 2 probe is first artificial object to hit Mars – 1971

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Jupiter continues to dominate the southern sky at nightfall, setting about 6 hours after the Sun. Mars high in SW at dawn. Venus and Saturn are in the ESE before dawn.
Nov. 2: Full Moon
Nov. 9: Last-quarter Moon
Nov. 12: Telescope shows Jupiter moon Europa passing in front of Io at 9:05 p.m.
Nov. 16: New Moon
Nov. 24: First-quarter Moon