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Great Galileo!
Trinity to observe 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy

By Susie P. Gonzalez

Astronomers at Trinity University will join their counterparts around the globe in celebrating 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. It will be a time to recognize the work by Galileo 400 years ago as a dominant scientist of his time and advancements made since then in the scientific study of the universe. Public viewing sessions using Trinity’s rooftop telescopes are planned and faculty from the department of physics and astronomy will present lectures of interest to amateur star-gazers and scientists alike.

David Hough, professor and chair of physics and astronomy, said the year-long, worldwide observances also provide an opportunity to showcase the program at Trinity. The number of majors has risen in recent years, and the introduction of astronomy as a minor has attracted students from disciplines outside physics.

First, Professor Hough offered a history lesson. In 1609, Galileo studied the sun, moon, and the planets Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. At that time, prevailing views put Earth at the center of the universe. But when Galileo discovered that Jupiter had moons, he began to reflect on earlier teachings by Polish astronomer Copernicus in the 1400s that the sun was indeed the centerpiece. Galileo’s scientific persistence earned him a reputation as the father of astronomy.

Astronomy, Professor Hough contends, offers a gateway to science education on a grand scale, especially in the eyes of young children who enjoy the “magic” of the skies. “The immense distances, sizes, ages, and powers of the strange and beautiful objects out there - and the bizarre phenomena like warping of space around black holes - just seem to have great appeal, especially to young minds,” he says. “Once  astronomy gets you ‘inside the door,’ you start to realize how much math, physics, chemistry, biology, and geology you need to start understanding everything that’s out there, including what kind of life might be out there.”

Such thoughts could lead to further study of astronomy, or to a career using sophisticated mathematical techniques derived from the use of telescopes to optimize radiation therapy for cancer, or to a prestigious Nobel Prize in chemistry – all good reasons, Professor Hough says, for celebrating astronomy.

At Trinity, the gravitational pull of astronomy has bumped up the number of physics majors from an annual average of four to seven, and some students who aren’t physics majors have declared astronomy as a minor. Based on the percentage of increase in majors from the mid-1990s to 2005, the department was recognized in 2006 by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics – a joint panel of the American Institute of Physics, American Association of Physics Teachers, and American Physical Society – as one of 30 “thriving” undergraduate physics programs in the country.

Events at Trinity and elsewhere to commemorate the Year of Astronomy include:

  • A sky-watching marathon April 2-5 featuring 100 hours of astronomy with a theme of outreach and education to excite people about astronomy. Details will be announced later.
  • An astronomy lecture and telescope viewing session to be announced.
  • A documentary titled “400 Years of the Telescope” to air in April on the Public Broadcasting System.
  • Events at the McDonald Observatory, www.mcdonaldobservatory.org,
  • A daily diary of astronomy facts, www.365daysofastronomy.org.

 


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