International Year of Astronomy


The Tribune, chandigarh, Friday,  2008 January 4

Rajesh Kochhar



THE United Nations has declared the year 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the astronomical use of telescope by Galileo Galilei. The proposal was  formally submitted by Italy, Galileo’s home country. UNESCO has been designated the lead agency for IYA2009.

International Astronomical Union, an organisation that brings together about 1000 astronomers from all over the world, will act as the facilitating body.  

Contrary to common public perception, Galileo is not the inventor of the telescope. The invention was accidentally made in 1608 by a Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey, who by chance combined a convex lens and a concave lens and noticed the magnification of the image of an object.

It should, however, be noted that Lippershey’s claim for a patent was turned down on the ground that the invention was in the air.  

The invention of the telescope belongs to the realm of romance of history. It would certainly make a good topic for a quiz contest. But it was its astronomical use the next year that constitutes a benchmark in the world history. As soon as the news of the chance discovery reached Galileo, at the time mathematics professor at the University of Padova, he worked out the scientific principles and made the world’s first designer telescope. Interestingly, Galileo did not immediately turn his sight on the heavens. He brought his telescope to the capital city of Venice; showed  to the Senators how with its help enemy ships could be sighted hours before they became visible to the naked eye; presented it to them;  and got a reward and a raise in pay.

It is only then that he made use of it in astronomy The astronomical telescope initiated a revolution the impact of which has gone beyond astronomy and science. 

The 400th anniversary of the event provides us with an opportunity to renew interest in and enthusiasm for astronomy, which is truly a world science. So far, 99 nations and 14 organisations have signed up to participate in IYA2009.The event will  highlight global cooperation for peaceful purposes and  aims to convey to the citizens of the world , especially the youth, the excitement of personal discovery and the merits of the scientific method. 

Countries like India, with a long and well-respected astronomical tradition, should make a special effort to celebrate the  year of astronomy . From Aryabhata’s time till that of Kepler, for about a thousand years  Indian astronomers were probably the only ones anywhere in the world who could predict lunar and solar eclipses  with an accuracy of a few hours that was remarkable for the time. The tradition was alive in Kerala as recently as 200 years ago.

Sawai Jai Singh’s  early 18th century masonry observatories in Delhi and Jaipur, commonly but wrongly dubbed Jantar Mantar,  were inspired by  Ulugh Beg’s Samarqand observatory, though they contain some original features also.

These observatories were, however, never really used. The  world’s first modern astronomical observatory outside Europe was set up in Madras in 1786. Meghnad Saha showed theoretically in 1920 that  the spectra of light from far-off stars could be understood  using the laws of nature as formulated on the earth, by postulating  extreme physical conditions in stellar atmospheres,  This work transformed the  cosmos into a  laboratory. 

Today, astronomy is a child of high technology , but as a cumulus, it represents the joint civilisational heritage of the humankind. It is hoped that the UN-sponsored Year of Astronomy will further the cause of science as well as of international cooperation.

Dr Rajesh Kochhar is  the Organising Secretary of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission on History of Astronomy.

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