January 2013 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
A common mantra heard during investigations of political doings (wrong or otherwise) is “What did they know, and when did they know it?” Credit or blame is thus assigned, and we can offer either reward or punishment accordingly.
In teaching science, we often use the names of the discoverers of important principles as shorthand for the discovery itself. Thus we have Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Copernican Revolution, Kepler’s Laws of Planetary motion, Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity, etc. Stephen Hawking’s name and image are cultural icons – I recall once seeing him represented in person on a Star Trek episode, and in cartoon on the Simpsons and Futurama. (OK – a confession. I do watch those shows!) Priority is given to the first one to publish a discovery, not necessarily the first to figure something out. We credit Galileo with the invention of the telescope, but the reality is that he improved on a device he saw being peddled in the streets of Venice by a Flemish spectacle merchant, and then claimed it as his own.
A mantra which we don’t often hear when talking about science, but which we should be teaching and insisting on in the doing of science is “What do we know, and how do we know it?” Galileo deserves credit for figuring out how lenses work, and then applying that principle (and higher quality Venetian glass) to actually design telescopes instead of just working by trial and error. Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity are thoroughly tested by making predictions of phenomena, and then doing the experiments to test those predictions. Even though many of the predictions are completely counter intuitive – or, perhaps counter to every day experience – they have stood the test of repeated measurement and observation. We do often hear the argument from those who don’t quite believe scientific evidence that, fore example, relativity and evolution are “just theories.” The implication is that theory is the same as guess, which then entitles one to make any guess or apply any intuition with equal validity.
But, that’s not how science works. Theory is the best distillation of the experimental and mathematical and computational evidence. If experiment contradicts theory, the theory is subject to modification. In this sense, though we are confident in our underlying theories, they are always treated as tentative, or as Karl Popper would say, they are falsifiable. If they cannot be falsified, indeed if the theory doesn’t tell you what it would take to make it false, then it doesn’t rise to the level of a real scientific theory.
Lunar phases for January: Last Quarter on the 4th, at 10:58 pm; New Moon on the 11th, at 2:44 pm; First Quarter on the 18th, at 6:45 pm; Full Moon on the 26th, at 11:38 pm.
Predawn planet watchers will find Venus rising to the southeast about 90 minutes before sunrise early in the new year. By month’s end it will be lower in the sky and only 40 minutes before the Sun. Saturn is south southeast at sunrise in early January, about 35 degrees above the horizon. It will climb as the month advances, appearing to the south at about 40 degrees altitude later in the month.
Early evening finds Mars low to the southwest, only about 15 degrees above the horizon (so you may not see it through ground clutter and haze. It will be closer to the Sun’s position as the month goes by, so expect it even lower and harder to spot. Jupiter spends the month in Taurus. Look for it to the east, about 40 degrees above the horizon. It will be above the familiar constellation Orion. It moves further south, ending the month starting the evening about 60 degrees above the southern horizon.
Our overhead view about 3 hours after sunset at midmonth has Capella in the constellation Auriga as the brightest star near zenith, about 17 degrees to the northeast. Aldebaran in Taurus is roughly the same angle to the southeast. That’s Jupiter five degrees above and to the right. Orion is unmistakable to the south, leading the bright star Sirius across the sky. Sirius is to the southeast, and is the brightest star visible from Earth. Gemini is to the east, with Castor lying above Pollux. They’re similar to the naked eye, which is why they are called the twins. Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) is to the northeast, appearing to stand on its “handle,” which stretches below the horizon. The top two stars in the bowl in this orientation mark the “pointers” which lead your eye to Polaris, which sits near the north celestial pole. The Great Square of Pegasus is to the west, tilted so that it looks like a diamond.
Copyright 2013George Spagna