Wednesday 17 March 2021

How would you know if you're right?

 I've been lurking at TYWKIWDBI since before I started bloggin' myself. I keep going back because the content is nicely random / unexpected but also overlaps with my interest in biology, the out-doors and human folly. Minnesotastan, the author, is rather endearingly cleaning his closets cabinets to make life easier for his heirs; and sharing some of the finds before they go off to Goodwill or the bonfire of the vanities. It's endearing because, like me, I suspect he's come to the conclusion that nobody is going to write his biography; so all that hoarded ephemera [concert fliers, restaurant bills, bday cards, ] is just clutter. Anyway, there is life in the old dog yet and he's still posting about peculiarities that come over his horizon . . .

Apparently, Christiaan Huygens [L b.1629-d.1695], the Netherlandish scientific polymath was in the habit of circulating anagrams to the astronomical community so show a) he was fluent in Latin b) he'd discovered something c) before them.  In 1655 (aged 26), Huygens devised and built a telescope with sufficient resolution to pick out a moon orbiting Saturn, the then furthest known planet. To establish the fact that these two specks of light were associated, Huygens had to record their position over several nights in less than optimum weather: it's cloudy at night in Den Haag almost as much as it is in Dublin. At the same time, he observed the facts a) that Saturn had rings and b) that they presented at different angles according to the season.  The Royal Society, founded in 1660, elected Huygens a member in 1662.

He recorded his mooning thus:
which kindly gives a clue as to where in the universe he'd made his latest discovery "Shift your eye to our most distant star . . .UUU"
The answer is "“Saturno luna sua circunducitur diebus sexdecim horis quatuor": The moon of Saturn orbits in 16 days and 4 hours. Which is pretty darn cool, not only discovering the moon but calculating its orbit at the same time - not leaving many crumbs for his contemporaries. If you teach you might check out the NASA source [PDF] for this story: there's more anagram fun and a celestial crossword.

Brilliant though he be, Huygens acknowledged that he was standing on the shoulders of giants when it came to telescopes, star-gazing . . . and peeing on the lamp-post with anagrams. Notably Galileo Galilei [1564-1642] and Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]. Galileo was much less inclined to give a hat-tip to those who went before, preferring not to share his rather exclusive place in the sun. I know all this from Arthur Koestler's  The Sleepwalkers , [prev] his brilliant biographical history of the early astronomical discoveries. In 1610, Galileo [and simultaneously Simon Mayr in Bavaria] had recorded the four [brightest] moons of Jupiter. That's a bit of an easier problem because Saturn is at least 2x further away from any telescopes than Jupiter. But it's an outstanding achievement.

Galileo had a punt at making another coup about Saturn's satellites but tbh the quality of his telescopes weren't up for the challenge. Nevertheless he sent the astro-community one of his boasty anagrams:
everyone pretty much let him at it with his tedious isn't GG clever tricks but Kepler agonised about the puzzle far more than it was worth trying to get a handle on the inside of Galileo's Big head - and taking time off from his day-job, as well as from productive scanning the heavens rather than anagrams which could mean anything at all - or nothing.
Kepler's best guess: Salve umbistineum geminatum Martia proles 
"Hail, burning twin, offspring of Mars." Whatever that means! Me, I'd lock into the obvious VENUS in the puzzle and pointed my optics at the morning star.

Of Course and, like, duh, the answer was "Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi" or "I have observed the highest planet [Saturn] as triplets". Squinting and screwing up his observing eye he convinced himself that he could see three bollupes to the planet whereas he was really seeing the opposite shoulders of Saturn's ring system bracketting the planet itself. Galileo was, accordingly, wrong but not as wrong as Kepler in this instance. But as I say above, these puzzles are not meant to solved except retro-actively and only by the author. The anagrams were intended to establish priority.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe was published in 1959, so it's probably out of print, and out of library, so maybe kindle is the way here. You can get the relevant part of the book including a couple more clever-clogs anagrams to play with.

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