Heavenly Bodies

April 28, 2013

Astronomy, History

Alchimia by Victoria FrancesJohn was a geek. No one doubted that. He liked three things; math, physics, and math. He spent hours every day at his little desk, drawing circles and triangles and weirdly nested multi-faceted polyhedrons, and he played around with the associated mathematical formulae. He made pretty good money these days at least, even though almost no one was really sure what his job entailed. The current situation was way better than the days of his youth when his mother and he were nearly starving. There were no food stamps or other government assistance programs back then, not even free cheese. If you complained about being hungry they just said to eat cake and then laughed maniacally. It was pretty annoying.

John’s mother was a witch. At least that’s what the cops said. Witchery was still illegal back in those days and that included selling magical potions. Mom was indeed a wiz at making the most out of the least in the kitchen. But what she whipped up on the stove in this case was a scheme for relieving the heart-broken housewives of Paris of their spare change. She would combine a bit of alcohol and spices in small containers marked with mysterious symbols. True love in a bottle. “Secretly add a little of Momma K’s Love Bitters into his afternoon tea, dear. He’ll be sure to leave that filthy slut and coming running back into your arms. That’ll cost you ten, no not five, ten thank you dear. This is the extra strength version. Don’t let him operate heavy machinery, and whatever you do don’t get it on your clothes.”
Incantation by Anne-Claire Payet
Only officially ordained Catholic priests were allowed to cast magic spells in those days, and then only under the approved fee structure. But a ten spot for a backdoor love potion? That’s robbery. And blasphemy. And tax evasion.

Johannes Kepler 1571 - 1630. Using Brahe's meticulous notes on the positions of Mars he was able to deduce that the planets orbit around the Sun, but in ellipses, not circles as Copernicus had assumed.Receiving fair play in a court of law was not totally unheard of, even in France, but it was a fairly new and experimental concept. John needed to hire a lawyer to have any hope of springing mom from the slammer. One sure way for a geek like John to make a quick buck was to sell people the mere prospect of a brighter future. Simply fumble with a few star maps, mumble something about retrograde and epicycles, and then spout a vague possibility of marriage and children in the years to come. It wasn’t really any different than what his mother had done. Not at all. But it was legal, and it didn’t stink up the kitchen, well not quite as bad anyway. Still, John had the urge to pinch his nostrils while conjuring imaginary threads connecting the distant orbs to human vanity.

Improper search was contended, evidence was thrown out of court, and mom was released on procedural grounds. With mommy back in the kitchen John returned to the seemingly endless days of looking for a real job and playing around with math and growing a perfectly rectangular over-sized beard.

Tycho Brahe 1546 - 1601. As royal astronomer of Denmark (before telescopes), he used a quadrant to precisely measure the positions of celestial objects, especially Mars. He observed a supernova and showed that it could not be within our atmosphere. He showed that comets must be farther away than the Moon. Over in Denmark and oblivious to all of John’s trials was Big Ty. Make no mistake, Ty was John’s opposite. They shared some things in common, like both Ty and John would sometimes only eat one meal per day, but Ty’s one meal lasted pretty much all of his waking hours. Ty weighed about 3 Johns. Then there was the issue of the clothes. With help from his team of skilled dresser drones, buzzing about him like so many short period comets, Ty could easily be presentable for attending formal breakfast within an hour or two after rising, including snack breaks. Then they would hurriedly change his attire as the table was reset for lunch. Dressing and eating consumed much of Ty’s focus during the day.

But then there was the night. This was when Ty would earn his fame and title and excessive governmental stipend. With help from several tiny minions, each clear night the great aristocrat would carefully and precisely measure the position in the sky of a planet or two. He expertly recorded the figures in a book which he then locked securely in a safe, away from any danger of it providing any useful purpose. Then he would be off to the party.
My sister asked me not to come drunk to her school play. Too bad, I really wanted to see it.
Ty could party. Don’t let anyone tell you Ty couldn’t party. No one would dare tell Ty how to party although one guy tried. The discussion actually started over a math problem but quickly led to a drunken stumbling slashing of sharp knives. Ty came up short on that deal by a nose. Not to fret long about an abbreviated face, Ty had his attendants fabricate several new noses of various materials and arrange them on his dresser so he could coordinate them properly with his outfits. The silver one accessorized nicely with the white and grey ruffled collar and the feather-infused black felt tricorn topper. But the brass one matched his favorite belt buckle. Each artificial proboscis included an attached string for mooring the device to his ears. A layer of soft sticky candle wax further aided in preventing the pseudo-schnaaz from sliding around on his face.

Beagle Puss, is the proper name for this device.For a man whose extensive girth challenged the nominal status of lesser celestial bodies, Ty sure could dance. I mean he could break it down. He gracefully rotated with the minimal precession of a finely balanced oblate spheroid. Of course such gyrations generated more internal heat than could be accounted for by solar proximity alone. Unfortunately the sudden surge in entropy could sometimes overwhelm the limited energy capacity of the candle wax, freeing the nose to be kicked about the ballroom floor by the galloping guests. To rectify these occasions, Ty pocketed an extra supply of the sticky goo in a small tin that had been previously depleted of snuff. Oh, and of course a man like Ty enjoyed no small amount of snuff dipping. But that goes without saying.

One evening while aggressively cavorting in world-class hedonistic debauchery, poor Ty choked on a buffalo wing and died. Or maybe his bladder burst from the dynamic stress of an badly attempted cartwheel. Or maybe he was poisoned by one of the social climbing courtiers, which were not in short supply. There are many theories and we may never know for sure, but there he lay on the dance floor, a lumpy pile, like three hundred pounds of potatoes stuffed in a fifty pound sack.

And that brings us back to John. The position of Official Assistant Measurer of Weird Stuff in the Sky That No One Understands had been awarded to John as a backup plan. After all, everyone knew Ty was a loose cannon determined to live fast and explode young. He had already lost a nose. Who knew what bodily protuberance would get cut off next? So John had been chosen and no doubt specifically because of his geeky penchant for staring at math scribbles. John had piles upon piles of math scribbles, mostly about planets, with notes in the margins, and lots of little arrows to indicate speed and direction and oddly enough, gender.

Claudius Ptolemy c. 90 – 168. The most influential astronomer of ancient times. His (geocentric) idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe prevailed for 1400 years. His writings include names of 48 constellations still in use today.For many years both John and Ty had contributed to an ongoing posthumous debate between two other dead guys, Claude and Nick. Claude had held that the Earth was the biggest thing there is or could ever be, which seems pretty obvious if you just step outside and have a look for your damn self. Not only is the Earth huge, like really freaking huge compared to everything else, but also Claude said that little things should go around big things, which neatly explains the itty bitty stars orbiting around the Earth. Furthermore, some of the little things, like Jupiter and Mars, ride bicycles or maybe they have roller skates or some loopy crap like that, which allows them to do fun circus tricks now and then.

Nicolaus Copernicus 1473 – 1543. He wrote 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies' a (heliocentric) treatment of the solar system. The idea is considered so important that it is often referred to as the 'Copernican Revolution.'Nick disagreed. Oh he reckoned that it made sense alright that the little stuff circled about the big stuff. But he didn’t go in for the whole circus clown business. For Nick the sky was better figured like one of those fair grounds for race horses, with a big ass Sun in the center of the infield, and the stars sitting way up in the bleachers betting on whether the Earth horse can overtake the Mars horse for example. Earth has the rail position and thus is the odds-on favorite year after year to take the derby. The nicest thing about the horsey theory is that there was plenty of entertaining motion by the jockeys without any need for clowning around on roller skates.

Nick was sure that the race track idea was a better explanation than Claude’s circus, although still not perfect. Some of the horses seemed to come up lame at the finish line but it was a long hard race and maybe there was celestial mud up there or something. He wrote all about it in a book and hid it under his bed and didn’t say much about it to anyone until after he was dead.
The Sun, with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the Universe to do. ~ Galileo Galilei
But then who doesn't?This is where the glory of math comes to the front of the story. John had math moves like Big Ty could dance. John could really bob and weave and swivel that little thingy that draws perfect circles, so all he needed was the book of measurements in Ty’s safe, and of course years and years and years of screwing around with the numbers. But eventually at long last he cracked the code. The key was to squish Nick’s circular race track into an oval shape like a proper race track ought to be. Maybe John accidentally sat on one of his models one day, anyway it worked. Suddenly the math all played out nicely and the horses quit coming up so lame at the end of the equation.

Still, folks were not too keen on throwing out Claude’s Earth-centered way of looking at the situation. It was a pretty fun way of thinking about stuff and besides they had been doing it that way for a helluva long time.
We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. ~ Carl Sagan
No, Nick’s way would be rather slow to catch on, especially since if one allowed that the Sun was a star, then the stars must be suns. And that meant that there might be critters out there, maybe even human-ish critters, way out there looking back at us. Just out there somewhere hanging out, doing whatever, not paying us taxes, not praying the proper prayers, or maybe randomly selling magic potions and what not.

Some folks were quite concerned about such possibilities and they might well smack you around or cut something off just for being disagreeable to Claude’s loopy theory. So there was no big official celebration right away for John, just a quiet little ceremony with a few close friends and a cake shaped like an ellipse.
There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight... Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travelers, maps of the celestial bodies. ~ Johannes Kepler
Now then, this guy came along named Isaac who was totally a show-off…

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