Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Universe, Yours to Discover

Welcome to the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). At long last, 2009 is here! Finally, those of us who bumble about in our backyards at all hours of the night, squinting at the night sky, can hold our heads up high. Even if we are wearing a combination of long johns, nightgown, and winter coat.

We-the-cosmically-curious uphold a 400-year-old tradition inaugurated by none other than the pioneering Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. Every stargazer who strives to see more through binoculars or telescopes, every amateur telescope maker who grinds glass, every artist who sketches sunspots or moon craters at the eyepiece— they all walk in Galileo’s footsteps. He was the big kahuna who got this star party started.

Crayon portrait of Galileo by Leoni

In 1609, just one year after the invention of the refractor telescope, the enterprising do-it-yourselfer Galileo turned one of his own home-made instruments skyward. He became the first person to use a telescope to make a set of celestial observations, and he quickly made a series of remarkable discoveries. This was the birth of modern astronomy.

Four hundred years later, the International Astronomical Union, the United Nations, and 135 countries around the globe are launching a year-long celebration of the quadricentennial of the astronomical telescope and Galileo’s far-reaching discoveries. You can start your search for events and activities in your area on the IYA U.S. site: just click here.

For my part, I’ll be paying tribute to Galileo and the transformational power of astronomy by focusing my blogging efforts this year on cosmic literacy. In addition to pointing the way to interesting night-sky objects in the Milky Way, each post in 2009 will include a brief explanation— in plain English— of an astronomy fact that every Earthling should know. If you stick with me, at the end of the IYA, we’ll know quite a bit about both the night sky and the universe in which we live. We’ll begin next week.

So onward, fellow sky-watchers, into the International Year of Astronomy and beyond the wild blue yonder. And the next time the sheriff shows up to investigate your neighbor’s report of suspicious nighttime activity in your backyard, you can confidently assure him that your midnight muttering and puttering is sanctioned by the United Nations. As for your flannel cow-print pajamas, not to worry. The fashion police generally knock off at five.

Trifid Nebula, Milky Way