Thursday, January 10, 2008

Senenmut would be proud

There are few, if any, sciences that have as much of a intimate relationship with time as astronomy does.

Because of the finite speed of light, we observe distant objects not as they are now but as they were long ago - millions of years ago in the case of nearby galaxies and billions of years ago for objects at higher redshift. By observing very large numbers of different objects, e.g. stars, we can follow all stages of their evolution that take millions or billions of years to occur in a single such object. Modern cosmology defines the age of Universe itself (13.7 billion years for a WMAP3 cosmology with H_0 = 71 km/s/Mpc, Omega_m = 0.27 and Omega_Lambda = 0.73).

In ancient days, at the dawn of human civilization several thousand years BCE, astronomy was as much about time as it is now. Agriculture, and hence civilization itself, relied upon careful timekeeping and nowhere more so than ancient Egypt where the annual Nile floods irrigated the land.

But we rarely see the personal side of ancient astronomy(*). Bojan Novakovic has written an interesting article on one ancient Egyptian astronomer: Senenmut (astro-ph/0801.1331), who was an important official in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut about 1500 BCE (today we would call Senenmut an over-achiever - he appears to have had an interesting life. See here and here).

The image on the left is a kneeling statue of Senemut at the Brooklyn Museum , taken by Keith Schengili-Roberts and licensed under the Creative Commons (found on wikipedia)

Were he alive today, Senenmut would probably in Austin, Texas, this week for the American Astronomical Society's annual winter meeting. He would no doubt be fascinated by the hundreds of talks and poster being presented there, and would probably discuss with colleagues (over coffee and a muffin) some of the major results being announced at the various press releases occurring at the meeting.

Would he be most interested in the Lyman-alpha-emitting galaxies discovered at high redshift that are the probably building blocks of today's massive spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way galaxy? Or would the detection of dust disks (which are possible planetary nurseries) around several stars that would otherwise be hundreds of millions of years too old to have such dust disks be the main topic of discussion? Perhaps, given his obvious political and managerial skills, Senenmut would mainly be discussing science politics and NASA funding.

But I'm sure that he'd be impressed with how far astronomy has come, and how fundamental a science it remains as.

(*) Ancient Greek astronomers are more well known. For example, Hipparchus (ca. 190 BCE to ca. 120 BCE) had the Hipparcos satellite named after him.

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