Sunday, August 25, 2013

Science Clock Series: Part XI

Today's number comes from astronomy and is given by:

\[\approx\ \text{diameter of ♃(in \(\beta\); \(\oplus=1\beta\)}\] This is a slightly roundabout way of saying "approximately the diameter of Jupiter in Earth-diameters." Let's look at it a little more closely:

First of all, what in the world is ♃ supposed to be? Or \(\oplus\)? To answer those questions we need to go back in time. About 2,000 years in fact, give or take. You see, one thing that I've learned from idly inspecting ancient writing, whether written, inscribed, or etched, is that ancient people liked to abbreviate.

Although it surprised me at first, this is entirely reasonable when you think about it; we do it all the time in everyday life, especially with the proliferation of instant messaging. Ancient peoples had to write everything by hand, which in my opinion is very dull and tiresome. You start looking for ways to reduce the amount you have to write, and before you know it you've got abbreviations all over the place.

Anyway, writing goes back a long time, but for much of history it was limited to a thin slice of the most educated in society. The study of astronomy also goes back a long time, and was one of the most common subjects for that educated elite to study, given its importance to pre-Industrial societies in helping to determine things like the proper time to plant and harvest crops in order to ensure everyone didn't starve over the winter.

Put those fact together, and people have been writing about astronomy for a very long time. Some of the oldest writings we find have been discovered to be about astronomy. Since it was so important, and given that most people like to save time and effort when writing, ancient astronomers in the Hellenistic period around the time of Christ came up with a set of symbols to refer to the "planets."

Note that the word "planets" in this context refers to the seven "planets" of the Ptolemaic (and originally Aristotelian) heliocentric system: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.These are the objects which, if you're familiar with the night sky, appear to move across it against the background of the fixed stars. Anyway, ancient astronomers came up with symbols for them that were used up through the Renaissance period. In fact, their use was so common that when astronomers such as William Herschel started discovering new planets astronomers rapidly came up with new symbols for them too. Anyway, here's a table with the symbols for the Sun, and the eight planets discovered before 1900:
\end{align*}You may be familiar with the symbols for Mars and Venus, as they have come to stand for “male” and “female” respectively in modern usage. Other than that, the only symbols commonly used in astronomy any more are the ones for the Sun and Earth. It's standard practice in astronomical journals for the symbols \(\text{R}_☉\), \(\text{M}_☉\), and \(\text{L}_☉\) to stand for the mass, radius, and luminosity of the Sun, respectively (and similarly for the Earth using the symbol for Earth).

It might give you some indication just how little known these symbols are today if I told you that right up until I looked them up to write this post I thought the symbol for Jupiter on my clock stood for Neptune!

Now that I know it stands for Jupiter, we can look at what the clock actually says: approximately the diameter of Jupiter in terms of “beta”, where “Earth” = 1 “beta.” I actually looked up beta to make sure there wasn't some special use for it that I wasn't aware of and couldn't find anything, so I'm not entirely sure what the point of introducing it only to immediately define it as one Earth was. Anyway, if we then check with the diameters of both Earth and Jupiter, we find that Jupiter does indeed have a diameter about 10.9377 times greater than Earth's.

So there you have it. And I realize this post isn't actually as short as I promised last time, though hopefully it was still interesting. There's a lot related to the astronomical symbols that I didn't cover, such as the fact that several were created for the first nineteen asteroids discovered before people realized that creating unique symbols for every asteroid would be effectively impossible and gave up (given that we now know of over a hundred thousand asteroids and suspect there may be ten times that number in the solar system, we can see that this was a good decision!).

Anyway, check back for the final post in this series, with a number from meteorology! Click here to jump directly to it.

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