Friday, December 25, 2009

Cassini on Christmas

Another of Milton's semi-contemporaries was Giovanni Domenico Cassini:

Cassini was an astronomer at the Panzano Observatory, from 1648 to 1669. He was a professor of astronomy at the University of Bologna and became, in 1671, director of the Paris Observatory. He thoroughly adopted his new country, to the extent that he became interchangeably known as Jean-Dominique Cassini — although that is also the name of his great-grandson.
Cassini was the first to observe four of Saturn's moons, which he called Sidera Lodoicea, including Iapetus, whose anomalous variations in brightness he correctly ascribed as being due to the presence of dark matter on one hemisphere (now called Cassini regio in his honour). In addition he discovered the Cassini Division in the rings of Saturn (1675). He shares with Robert Hooke credit for the discovery of theGreat Red Spot on Jupiter (ca. 1665). Around 1690, Cassini was the first to observe differential rotation within Jupiter's atmosphere.
In 1672 he sent his colleague Jean Richer to CayenneFrench Guiana, while he himself stayed in Paris. The two made simultaneous observations of Mars and, by computing the parallax, determined its distance, thus measuring for the first time the true dimensions of the solar system.
Cassini was the first to make successful measurements of longitude by the method suggested by Galileo, using eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter as a clock.

The astronomer's intellectual trajectory suggests the uncertain boundaries between astronomy and astrology, science and magic, belief and skepticism at the heart of the 17th century:
Attracted to the heavens in his youth, his first interest was in astrology. While young he read widely on the subject of astrology, and soon was very knowledgeable about it; this extensive knowledge of astrology led to his first appointment as an astronomer. Later in life he focused almost exclusively on astronomy and all but denounced astrology as he became increasingly involved in the Scientific Revolution.
Images from the Cassini-Huygens Titan probe offer new glimpses of Saturn, just in time for Christmas:

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