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  • Elizabeth Cocking

In this month: November

Each month Elizabeth Cocking researches astronomical events and the births of people in history connected to astronomy research, physics and space exploration.

25th November 1915

Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity. Not to be confused with his Special Theory of Relativity, with the famous equation E=mc2, which he published in 1905. The General Theory of Relativity is a theory of space and time, the main idea being that space and time are two aspects of spacetime.

Before the advent of general relativity, Sir Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation had been accepted for more than two hundred years. Einstein's theory accounts for several effects that are unexplained by Newton's law, and also predicts effects such as gravitational waves, gravitational lensing and gravitational time dilation. Many of these predictions have been confirmed by experiment or observation, while others are the subjects of ongoing research.

However, in 1917 Einstein realized that astronomical evidence about the shape of the universe seemed to contradict his General Theory of Relativity. Unable to account for the discrepancy he modified his equation putting in an additional term, the Cosmological Constant.

As it turned out, some years later, fresh evidence proved that his original idea had been correct, and Einstein reinstated his original equation. He called his temporary modification “the greatest blunder of my life”. The image right is of Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric Einstein, 1912. Credit: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Unbekannt / Portr_03106 / Public Domain.

3rd November 1957

The Russian spacecraft Sputnik 2 is launched with a female part Siberian husky dog named Laika on board. While not the first animal in space, she was the first living creature to orbit the Earth. Little was known about the impact of spaceflight on living creatures at the time of Laika's mission. Some scientists believed humans would be unable to survive the launch or the conditions of outer space, so engineers viewed flights by animals as a necessary precursor to human missions.

Sadly she did not survive the mission but the experiment did prove that a living creature could survive being launched into orbit and endure a micro-g environment, paving the way for human spaceflight and providing scientists with some of the first data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments. Since then, animals have continued to play an important role in understanding the impact of micro-gravity on living creatures.

On the 11th April 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika built near the military research facility in Moscow that prepared her flight into space. It portrayed a dog standing on top of a rocket. She also appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow.

1st November 1963

The Arecibo telescope is officially opened. Built into a sinkhole in a mountain range in northwest Puerto Rico, the telescope’s huge primary disc was used to discover the first exoplanets and detect organic molecules outside our galaxy.

For more than 50 years, from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 when the Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China was completed, the Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope was the world's largest single-aperture telescope. It is used in three major areas of research - radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. The main collecting dish is 307 metres in diameter, constructed inside the depression left by a sinkhole.

The dish surface is made of 38,778 perforated aluminium panels.

Many scientific discoveries have been made with the observatory. In 1964, soon after it began operating, it was used to determine that the rotation period of Mercury was not 88 days, as formerly thought, but only 59 days. In 1968, the discovery of the periodicity of the Crab Pulsar provided the first solid evidence that neutron stars exist and in 1974 it discovered the first binary pulsar. In August 1989 the observatory directly imaged an asteroid 4769 Castalia for the first time in history.

In 1974, the Arecibo Message, an attempt to communicate with potential extra-terrestrial life, was transmitted from the radio telescope toward the globular cluster Messier 13, about 25,000 light-years away. The Arecibo Observatory is quite famous, featuring in many books and movies such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, the James Bond movie Golden Eye and most famously the movie Contact, where the main character uses the observatory as part of the SETI project that discovers an extra-terrestrial signal.


6th November 1886

Ida Barney. American astronomer. Best known for her 22 volumes of astrometric measurements on 150,000 stars. In 1922 she was appointed a research assistant at the Yale University Observatory where she spent most of her career working under the Director, Frank Schlesinger; where she plotted the position of stars from photographic plates and worked on the calculations of their celestial coordinates from their positions on the plates. The work was tedious, which Schlesinger thought to be suitable for women incapable of theoretical research. Despite this influence she developed several methods that increased both the accuracy and speed of astronomic measurements, including the use of a machine that automatically centred the photographic plates. In 1941, when Schlesinger retired, she took over full supervision of the cataloguing.

In 1952, While a Research Associate at the Yale University Observatory, Barney was awarded the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy, a prestigious award for women astronomers given by the American Astronomical Society.

Asteroid 5655 Barney, discovered in 1973, is named in her honour.

11th November 1915

Sidney Charles Bartholemew "Ben" Gascoigne AO. A New Zealand-born Australian optical astronomer and expert in photometry who played a leading role in the design and commissioning of Australia's largest optical telescope, the Anglo-Australian Telescope, which for a time was one of the world's most important astronomical facilities.

In 1941, during World War 2, Gascoigne came to Australia to join a team working in optical munitions at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, at Mount Stromlo in Canberra. After the war he continued at Mount Stromlo, conducting astronomical research. He had a particular interest in stellar evolution, the scale used to measure distance and faint star photometry. The photograph right shows Ben Gascgoigne at Mt Stromlo in 1948.

Among Gascoigne's most important achievements was his work in establishing the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, New South Wales. Commissioned in 1974, the 150-inch telescope is part of the Anglo-Australian Observatory.

He was honoured with an Order of Australia in 1996 for his service to Australian astronomy.

9th November 1920

Alenush Terian. Iranian-Armenian astronomer. Called the “mother of Iranian astronomy” as she founded the first solar telescopic observatory in Iran. She taught and carried out astronomical research for three decades with inadequate resources motivated by a strong desire to engender scientific education and research in her country.

In 1947 she graduated from the University of Tehran and began her career in the physics laboratory of this university and was elected the chief of laboratory operations in the same year. She applied for a scholarship, but her professor did not approve her request because she was a woman. With her family’s financial support she went to France and continued her education at the Sorbonne University. After receiving her PhD in 1956 she returned to Iran and became assistant professor in thermodynamics at the University of Tehran.

In 1964 she became the first female professor of physics in Iran.

She retired in 1979 and lived to the age of 90 years.


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