Still the biggest X factor: the Universe

Still the biggest X factor: the Universe

28th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

'The Universe, Yours to Discover' - no, it's not the strap line to some futuristic tour operator but the motto of the launch of 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy.

The UNESCO headquarters in Paris was the launch pad for the event, at the beginning of this month, that is being hailed as a "global celebration of astronomy and its contribution to society and culture".

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1609, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei started scanning the heavens with a brand-new invention, the telescope. It had been invented the year before by Hans Lippershey, a Dutchman of German descent.

According to astronomy writer Govert Schilling, the telescope marked an enormous breakthrough, spawning the birth of modern astronomy as a true science. He stresses, however, that the first major leap forward was the realisation in the 16th century that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. "From that point onwards, our place within the enormity of the universe has been one big journey of discovery," Mr Schilling told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Leaps and bounds

After the appearance of the telescope, it would take another three hundred years for the next big step in astronomy. It was not until the 1920s that the expansion of the universe was first observed. Mr Schilling explains,"That really put us on the trail of the Big Bang, the theory describing the dawn of the universe, which shows that we are actually a part of a cosmic evolution spanning 14 billion years."

The universe is so vast, even after centuries of research, we are still only scratching at the surface of what there is to learn, believes Schilling. "In the last decades, we have discovered that much of the universe is made up of mysterious 'dark matter' and the even more puzzling 'dark energy'.

Nobody really knows what this is. "We actually only have an inkling of what makes up the universe beyond the few per cent that we have charted so far," Mr Schilling adds.

For the last ten years, astronomers have primarily focused on exo-planetary research: that is, planets beyond our own solar system. The spectacular technological improvements that allow us to scan the cosmos now prove the existence of planets that orbit other stars, in much the same way as the Earth circles the sun.

The ultimate dream of course is to find planet like ours, although any such planet would be too far away for man to reach.

Added value?

The fact that these exo-planets are so distant begs the question whether astronomy has any valid use. Are all of those billions of euros being spent not just a waste of money?

For Govert Schilling, the matter is clear, "The question of who we are as humans and what our role is in the bigger picture is so important, it transcends any concern about practical relevance. It was high time for an International Year of Astronomy."

You can read more about the Year of Astronomy on the organisation's homepage.

Thijs Westerbeek
Radio Netherlands


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