Cosmic Quest

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02Cathedrals Of The Cosmos - Megalithic Calendars And The Solar Year *2008052720130502 (BBC7)

In ancient times, our ancestors' calendar was agricultural.

The rising and setting of the sun dominated people's lives and they were dependent on the seasons for their livelihoods.

The orientation of stone circles such as Stonehenge and underground tombs such as Newgrange in Ireland may have been to mark the midwinter solstice and pray for the Sun's return.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper reflects on the importance of the sun to ancient agrarian society. With Timothy West.

03Stories Of The Sky - Origins Of The Constellations, And Constellation Legends *2008052820130503 (BBC7)

Our ancestors mapped the stories of their mythology onto the constellations in the sky.

The stars' positions overhead told them the best time to hunt or plant and when to expect extreme weather.

Even today, the ancient sky stories make good tales.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper reflects on how early man mapped the stories of his mythology onto the constellations in the sky.

04Mirror Of The Earth - The Chinese Astronomical Bureaucracy *2008052920130506 (BBC7)

In ancient civilisations, from Babylon to China, events in the sky were linked with what would otherwise seem to be good or bad fortune.

Astrology developed not as a means of guiding individuals in their love lives and fortunes, but of advising rulers on their military campaigns.

Astrological monitoring of the skies produced some of the earliest accurate astronomical records.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper looks at the history of astrology which began as a way of advising rulers on their military campaigns.

05Three Wise Men - Ancient Astronomy And The Star Of Bethlehem *2008053020130507 (BBC7)

A little over 2,000 years ago, three wise men from the East are said to have followed astronomical signs which led them to a stable in Bethlehem.

From ancient Babylonian times, stars and planets had been associated with different deities.

Through Babylonian and Egyptian astrology came the basis of modern mathematics and the division of the sky - and the day - into 24 hours.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper reviews ancient associations of stars and planets with deities, and astrology's link to maths and the 24-hour day.

06Philosopher Scientists - The Innovative Ideas Of The Early Greeks2008060220130508 (BBC7)

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy. About 2,600 years ago, Greek philosopher Thales was the first person to suggest that natural forces rather than the gods might be responsible for dramatic events such as earthquakes and even eclipses. Pythagoras developed an interest in geometry that led him to realise that the Earth was a sphere. This was the start to a series of philosophical schools.

2600 years ago, Greek philosopher Thales was the first person to suggest that natural forces rather than the gods might be responsible for dramatic events such as earthquakes and even eclipses.

As one of the first true scientists, he successfully predicted a total eclipse of the sun in 585 BC, bringing an end to a 15-year war.

Pythagoras developed an interest in geometry that led him to realise that the Earth was a sphere.

This was the start to a series of philosophical schools which went on to calculate the relative sizes and distances of Earth, moon and sun and, under Aristarchus, even to suggest that the sun and not the Earth was the centre of the universe.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer

07Wheels Within Wheels - Later Greeks Measure And Map The Heavens2008060320130509 (BBC7)

Heather Couper reflects on astonomer Ptolomy, who wrote 13 volumes listing over 1000 stars and 48 constellations around AD 150.

In 1900, a Greek diver exploring an ancient shipwreck recovered a corroded mechanism now believed to be an astronomical computer, more than 2000 years old, able to calculate the movements of the sun, moon and perhaps even certain planets.

It may owe its ingenuity to two of the greatest later Greek astronomers, Archimedes and Hipparchus.

Around the year AD 150, Ptolemy collated all the Greek knowledge of the heavens in a 13-volume masterpiece best known today by its later Arabic title, the Almagest.

With its definitive list of over a thousand stars and 48 constellations, it became the standard astronomical text for the next 1400 years.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian and John Palmer.

08Mathematics Of The Sky - Islamic Science Fuels The Torch Of Discovery *2008060420130510 (BBC7)

Astronomer Heather Couper considers the contribution of the Islamic scholar, poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam.

During the dark ages in Europe, knowledge of the heavens and an interest in astronomy were kept alive in Arabic and Persian lands.

Omar Khayyam was not only a great poet but also an astronomer, philosopher and mathematician.

He measured the length of the year with great precision and devised a calendar that is more accurate than the one we use today.

Centuries before the invention of the telescope, Ulugh Beg's great Samarkand Observatory was making accurate observations of the movements of the sun, planets and stars.

Muslim scholars kept the torch of astronomy alight and also fuelled it with new knowledge.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian and John Palmer.

09The Earth Moves - How Copernicus Decentralised The Earth *2008060520130513 (BBC7)

Astronomer Heather Couper considers the impact of Copernicus's idea that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe.

In the 16th century, Polish canon Nikolaus Copernicus revolutionised astronomy.

For centuries, Western scholars had accepted the cosmology of Aristotle, which focused on the Earth being at the centre of the cosmos.

Copernicus pointed out that it would be simpler if they were to take the sun as the centre of the system and put the Earth and other planets in orbit around it.

For many years he was reluctant to publish this heretical suggestion and was only persuaded to do so by a young Austrian named Rheticus.

He read the final page proofs of his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, on the day that he died in 1543.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

10The Imperfect Cosmos - Kepler And Tycho Turn The Universe On Its Side2008060620130514 (BBC7)

Astronomer Heather Couper looks at Tycho Brahe's realisation that the heavens change, but that a planet's orbit could be predicted.

In 1572, a Danish nobleman named Tycho Brahe saw what seemed like a new star flaring up in the sky.

As it faded over the next few weeks, he realised that the heavens are not perfect and unchanging as some philosophers would have them be.

Some years later, he met up with a young German mathematician named Johannes Kepler, who proposed that the planets were pulled around the sun not by divine forces but by something emanating from the sun.

He reasoned that, since the planets appear to be slightly closer to the sun at some times, they should move faster at these times.

That would make their orbits not circular but elliptical.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

11Galileo - Seeing Is Believing *2008060920130515 (BBC7)

Galileo did not invent the telescope, but was the first to record his observations and to realise their significance. Heather Couper looks at the impact of Galileo's idea.

Galileo did not invent the telescope, but was the first to record his observations and to realise that what he saw would change our understanding of the universe.

In 1610 he observed that the Milky Way was made up of countless stars and that there were four moons in orbit around Jupiter.

If Jupiter could move and carry its moons with it, then so could the Earth.

Copernicus was right - the Earth was but another planet in orbit around the Sun.

Galileo was stubborn and outspoken.

The church did not like what he said and wrote, and in 1633 he was summoned before the Inquisition and forced to recant his heresy.

He got off lightly with house arrest in a beautiful Tuscan villa.

Since his death, he has become a scientific celebrity.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

12Newton - A Matter Of Some Gravity2008061020130516 (BBC7)

Astronomer Heather Couper looks at how Isaac Newton's mathematical brilliance put the laws of physics on a firm foundation.

Isaac Newton was born in 1642.

He studied hard at Trinity College in Cambridge but was forced home to Lincolnshire by the Great Plague in 1666.

It is there that he is supposed to have seen an apple falling and been inspired to develop his theory of gravity.

An ancient apple tree still stands in his garden at Woolsthorpe and may have given him inspiration, but it was his brilliance as a mathematician that put the basic laws of physics on a firm foundation.

Newton's work on the nature of light and optics drew him to the attention of the newly founded Royal Society and led ultimately to the publication of his great work Principia.

He would eventually be elected President of the Royal Society.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

14A Planet Called George - How William Herschel Doubled The Size Of The Solar System2008061220130520 (BBC7)

In 1781, using his home-made telescope, Herschel discovered a new planet twice as distant as Saturn and four times larger than the Earth.

He wanted to call it George's Star in honour of George III, but was persuaded to follow convention and name it Uranus after the Greek god of the sky.

With the help of his sister Caroline, Herschel went on to make a methodical chart of the cosmos, estimating stellar distances from their brightnesses and constructing a remarkably accurate map of the Milky Way.

He also recognised that our sun was just one of a multitude of stars.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper looks at William Herschel's attempts to chart the cosmos using a homemade telescope, and how he doubled the size of the Solar System.

15The Celestial Police - Tracking Down Asteroids And Planets2008061320130521 (BBC7)

Following the discovery of Uranus, astronomers were keen to see if the solar system had any other previously unknown members.

Johann Bode, director of the Berlin Observatory, set up what he referred to as the Celestial Police to search the skies.

In particular, based on a gap in the otherwise even spacing of the planets, he suspected that there must be something between Mars and Jupiter.

In 1801, Guiseppe Piazzi discovered an object he named Ceres after the patron goddess of Sicily, but it was so faint and small that the search continued.

Soon, many more of these so-called asteroids were found.

Meanwhile, the search continued in the outer solar system.

Using a French prediction, German observers discovered Neptune in 1846.

It was not until 1930 that another planet was found, though Pluto has since been demoted from planetary status.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Astronomer Heather Couper looks at the work of the planet hunter Johann Bode, who patrolled the dark cosmic alleyways.

16Plumbing The Depths - The Birth Of Astrophysics2008061620130522 (BBC7)

The science of astrophysics has emerged over the past 300 years.

It began with the first attempts to measure the distances of the stars but took off in late Victorian times with the invention of the spectroscope, a device to split starlight up into its component wavelengths.

This led to an understanding of the composition of stars and the discovery of a new element on the Sun.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

The science of astrophysics has emerged over the past 300 years. It began with the first attempts to measure the distances of the stars but took off in late Victorian times with the invention of the spectroscope, a device to split starlight up into its component wavelengths. This led to an understanding of the composition of stars and the discovery of a new element on the Sun.

17Who Discovered The Galaxy? - The Nature Of The Milky Way20080617

Galileo realised that the Milky Way was a glowing band of stars across the sky and philosopher Immanuel Kant recognised that our Sun was just one member of a vast star system.

But for centuries, few recognised the true nature of our galaxy.

In the late 19th century, William Herschel realised that the Milky Way was a giant body of stars, but still his discovery was ignored.

It was not until early in the 20th century that Harlow Shapley began to estimate the distances of the stars and hence map out the Milky Way in three-dimensional detail.

Radio astronomy finally yielded the ability to penetrate the dark clouds towards the galactic centre and see the true distribution of matter in the skies.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

18Deep Space - Nebulae Are Island Universes2008061820130524 (BBC7)

In 1845 the third Earl of Rosse completed the biggest telescope in the world at his castle in the centre of Ireland.

In spite of cloudy skies, this leviathan enabled him to see spectacular detail in the sky, including a spiral structure in certain fuzzy patches known as nebulae.

Some of these seemed so big that astronomers thought they must be rotating clouds of gas out of which planetary systems are born.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt refuted this, studying variable stars and realising that a certain type of star varied at a rate that was linked to its brightness.

These so-called Cepheid variables could be used to estimate the vast distances of space.

In 1919, the young Edwin Hubble used a new telescope in California to search for Leavitt's Cepheids in spiral nebulae.

He discovered, to his astonishment, that the nearest, the Andromeda nebula, lay well outside our own galaxy and constituted an island universe in its own right.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Heather Couper traces our understanding of nebulae, island universes outside our galaxy.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

In 1845 the third Earl of Rosse completed the biggest telescope in the world at his castle in the centre of Ireland. In spite of cloudy skies, this leviathan enabled him to see spectacular detail in the sky, including a spiral structure in certain fuzzy patches known as nebulae. Some of these seemed so big that astronomers thought they must be rotating clouds of gas out of which planetary systems are born.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt refuted this, studying variable stars and realising that a certain type of star varied at a rate that was linked to its brightness. These so-called Cepheid variables could be used to estimate the vast distances of space.

In 1919, the young Edwin Hubble used a new telescope in California to search for Leavitt's Cepheids in spiral nebulae. He discovered, to his astonishment, that the nearest, the Andromeda nebula, lay well outside our own galaxy and constituted an island universe in its own right.

19Einstein's Biggest Blunder And The Expanding, Accelerating Universe2008061920130527 (BBC7)

In 1915, Albert Einstein found that he had to introduce a new factor into his equations of gravity to prevent the stars from falling in on one another.

He called it the cosmological constant.

But then, astronomers discovered that the light from galaxies was stretched in a way that could only be explained if the galaxies were flying apart from each other and the universe was expanding.

A recent twist to this tale came in the year 2000, when estimates of the rate of the expansion revealed that the most distant galaxies are accelerating.

The only way to explain this was by a force called dark energy - in effect, a cosmological constant.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

In 1915, Albert Einstein found that he had to introduce a new factor into his equations of gravity to prevent the stars from falling in on one another. He called it the cosmological constant. But then, astronomers discovered that the light from galaxies was stretched in a way that could only be explained if the galaxies were flying apart from each other and the universe was expanding.

A recent twist to this tale came in the year 2000, when estimates of the rate of the expansion revealed that the most distant galaxies are accelerating. The only way to explain this was by a force called dark energy - in effect, a cosmological constant.

20How The Universe Began - Steady State, Big Bang And The Glow Of Creation2008062020130528 (BBC7)

The discovery that the universe is expanding led cosmologists to suggest that its origin lay in a compact, dense, hot fireball.

Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle thought this so ridiculous that he disparagingly called it the big bang.

The name stuck and there followed intense arguments between supporters of the big bang theory and Fred Hoyle and his colleagues, who favoured a steady state universe.

A decisive blow to the latter theory came from a radio telescope in New Jersey in the early 1960s that detected a gentle background glow at microwave radio frequencies that theorists had predicted as the dying embers of the big bang itself.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

The discovery that the universe is expanding led cosmologists to suggest that its origin lay in a compact, dense, hot fireball. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle thought this so ridiculous that he disparagingly called it the big bang. The name stuck and there followed intense arguments between supporters of the big bang theory and Fred Hoyle and his colleagues, who favoured a steady state universe.

23Violent Universe2008062520130603 (BBC7)

Only in the last 50 years have telescopes been powerful enough to study distant galaxies beyond our Milky Way in much detail.

Cygnus A first came to astronomers' attention as a radio source, the second strongest in the sky.

Optical astronomers later realised that it was a pair of galaxies colliding with one another.

It is a colossal 700 million light years away, making its radio output a million times more powerful than that of our Milky Way.

Energetic reactions were taking place in its core, shooting out great jets of high energy particles emitting radio waves.

The next breakthrough came from an even more distant object over 2 billion light years away.

At its heart was something 40 times more luminous than a normal galaxy yet no bigger than the solar system.

These mysterious powerhouses were named quasi-stellar radio sources, now abbreviated to quasars.

The consensus now is that they are massive black holes, millions or even billions of times the mass of our Sun, gobbling stars and gas in the centres of galaxies.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-tutt and John Palmer.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

Only in the last 50 years have telescopes been powerful enough to study distant galaxies beyond our Milky Way in much detail. Cygnus A first came to astronomers' attention as a radio source, the second strongest in the sky. Optical astronomers later realised that it was a pair of galaxies colliding with one another. It is a colossal 700 million light years away, making its radio output a million times more powerful than that of our Milky Way. Energetic reactions were taking place in its core, shooting out great jets of high energy particles emitting radio waves.

The next breakthrough came from an even more distant object over 2 billion light years away. At its heart was something 40 times more luminous than a normal galaxy yet no bigger than the solar system. These mysterious powerhouses were named quasi-stellar radio sources, now abbreviated to quasars. The consensus now is that they are massive black holes, millions or even billions of times the mass of our Sun, gobbling stars and gas in the centres of galaxies.

25Design Or Accident: Why Me?2008062720130605 (BBC7)

Every answer to an astronomical question seems to throw up a deeper mystery.

Heather Couper presents a narrative history of astronomy.

Given all that we now know about the formation of stars and planets and the evolution of life on Earth, it might seem as if the mystery is being taken out of the universe. However, every solution seems to throw up a deeper mystery. Within our understanding of physics, there are no known fundamental reasons for much of the astronomical phenomena that we observe. Of course, we can only observe a universe that supports life. This is known as the anthropic principle and has far-reaching implications. Some argue that it makes the universe very special, as if we were meant to be, while others suggest that we inhabit one of the few bio-friendly corners in an almost infinite multiverse of possibilities.

Readers are Timothy West, Robin Sebastian, Julian Rhind-Tutt and John Palmer.