Why is our lodging always 600 feet above the train station! It shouldn't bother us, we're stronger cyclists since we landed in Italy. We wanted to pick up the tour from Milan, but of course, pouring rain again forced us onto the train. Even the short 8 kilometers up the hill made us soggy and tired.
We've stayed now for three nights in Como, and I want you to tell you about our little holiday. Since the moon is late in the waning crescent phase, it doesn't come out at night. Jupiter and Saturn are still a bit too late in the evening for weeknights, so the Moon Men entered a bit of hibernation, and enjoyed some long, pleasant bike rides around the lake. From above, Lake Como looks like a fractal (most things in nature do), and you can definitely feel it from the ground with the winding roads and turns. Some of the most beautiful riding I've made in my whole life. I want to return and circumnavigate the whole lake! In a day of riding, we didn't even come close.
Como names itself Citta` di Alessandro Volta. Volta wasn't an astronomer but his contributions to science are worth a visit. Volta - the unit of the Volt! In his time, scientists had achieved a very basic understanding of electricity. In the middle of the 18th Century, Leyden jars came on the scene. These glass jars store electric charge the same way you do if you rub your socks on a carpet. You would spin the jar around and around against brushes, and this builds up static electricity on the jar. Fun fact - all of the static electricity is stored on the surface of the jar, not inside. But the empty space inside these jars gives you the impression that scientists really thought the jars contained some sort of invisible energy inside.
The problem with storing electricity this way is the same problem with rubbing your feet on the carpet: it's a shock! All the electric charge inside the Leyden jar is released as soon as you touch it or complete a circuit. That's the importance of Volta's chemical batteries, and that's why we visited his burial site.
Volta's temple is a mini-pantheon, with a large-domed interior. Inside are the glass vials where he created the first Zinc acid batteries are kept. If you connect a wire to one of these zinc stacks, you get, instead of a shock, a slow, steady current. Volta even presented his invention to Napoleon!
On our last night to ourselves, we observed Jupiter, making more observations of its moons. Did you know that when you look at something low in the sky, you're looking at it through 10 times more air than if it was directly overhead?
Being on the road all the time, with cloudy skies, there's plenty of time to do listening and reading.
John Dobson, the inventor of the Dobsonian telescope, and of sidewalk astronomy, has some excellent lectures on cosmology. Want to contemplate how suns and galaxies form? Are gravity and electricity opposites? Beware, his interpretations about the big bang and dark matter aren't exactly Kosher, but he explains the physics in an every day way and blends it with some extremely interesting Vedantan philosophy.
Check it out!
Sometimes, it surprises you to come across a piece of history. Sometimes, it towers over you like a 40 foot tall telescope.
It's the Merz-Repsold telescope. Standing underneath Schiaparelli's half-meter refractor. I feel small. Small in the same way as when you see a suspension bridge or skyscraper from directly below. But there's something more mysterious about this massive structure, five meters above my head. It's the distance and the largeness of the telescope's targets. Details on Mars never seen before. Brass gears and dials, glass and refraction create a spaceship, zooming through the atmosphere in the center of a Milan that was not yet light polluted.
Schiaparelli spent four years mapping canals and oceans, what we now know are canyons and mountains. Once you've spent time trying to make out the detail on Mars with your telescope, you'd understand. 200 times closer, it looks like a smudge. The atmosphere actually more like a dense ocean, blurring the view. But with these machines, we continued that very human goal of decoding the sky above, somehow with the feeling that the answers we find could change humanity forever.
The cancals, was there water on Mars? Life? The debate rages today. These ideas fresh on the stage contributed to the age of science fiction in literature! Did you know that your telescope could write a book?
I want to tell you about Guido D'Arturo. I learned about him at Museo della Specola at the University of Bologna. He is the inventor of the largest telescopes in the world, but that's not what wikipedia says. Guido was born in 1879 to a Jewish family and in 1921 served as the director of the Observatory at the University of Bologna.
The size of a telescope's mirror is the size of its eyeball, a bigger mirror can see dimmer objects that are further away. While working in Bologna, he pioneered a new technology called the segmented mirror. This was a way to construct a very large mirror out of lots of small pieces. The challenge? Every piece needed to point in exactly the same direction.
His first prototype got close, but as a Jew, he spent years in hiding during the fascist period of Italy's history. After the war, he bravely returned to his work and created a new prototype.
Check out the picture with all the screws underneath those mirrors. 81 mirrors had 3 knobs each to tilt them in the right direction. 243 adjustments and they each needed to be exact. Guido stood at the focus of the telescope, three stories above the mirror, and by telephone, instructed his assistant which screws to turn.
"Ok, mirror 63, knob 2, a little bit up, no, too much! Try mirror 65."
This system worked well enough for him to take some photographs, but Guido died before patenting his work. The assistant, Dr. Jerry Nelson, brought the manuscripts to the University of Arizona, where the world's largest telescopes are made today, based on this exact technolgy. Dr. Nelson is still credited with the invention, maybe he felt underappreciated for sitting in a basement all those years turning knobs!
Another great find in the museum, we found a beautiful "family portrait" of the Solar System, painted and signed by Clara Eimmarta, when most of the time, a woman's father or husband would instead sign the painting. We're posing in front of these beautiful works of art.
That night, we biked to Piazza Maggiore for views of Jupiter. We invited our tour guide from the Museum, Luiza, to join us. We were so delighted when she did! Luisa works part time offering tours of the museums, but she had never seen a clear view of Jupiter before! We showed her as soon as it rose above the buildings, and she found it wonderful. For three hours, she stayed with us, and enjoyed the company of everyone we showed. Thank you Luiza for making our astronomy visit in Bologna a very special one!
The rain isn't letting up. Each day we plan for travel, it pours. At least the trains will keep us safe.
We arrive in Bologna and meet our host Victor. Victor is a professional. He can cycle 200 km a day, and he's done it all over the world. Europe, America, Africa. We share stories and love how much we could learn from him. Maybe we should have brought tents! I've been saying, by the end of this tour, we'll just know how we want to make the next one!
Victor designs lightweight steel bike frames using the same alloys that NASA uses on their rockets. He brings us down to his basement where his beauties live, and shows me some true space technology, an entire steel frame that weighs less than 10 lbs (4.5 kg). Another bike: for travelers, remove two bolts, and the entire frame collapses onto itself, for you to bring onto any bus or train. Check these out guys: Almincicli.com
Jupiter doesn't rise above the buildings until about 11 pm, but tomorrow we make plans to set up our telescope in Piazza Maggiore.
Back to Rome? On a fast train? Don't get on the wrong train! We are lucky that there is another one a half hour later. We aren't going to miss this at any expense.
Back at the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, we met Giovanni Sacco, of Unitron Instruments. We mentioned that we were soon leaving on an astronomy tour of Europe. He linked us up with his colleague, Claudio Costa, who invited us for a tour of the Vatican Observatory.
When we meet him in Termini station, Claudio was a soft-spoken but confident man wearing a Kennedy Space Center sweatshirt. He walked us to his car and we began our drive to Castel Gandolfo, the Summer residence of the Pope. Long ago, the Vatican had an electronic issue with one of their research telescopes. Claudio had the chance to offer his assistance. He laughs, recalling the biggest stroke of luck in his life: "I got the contract, fixed the telescope, and then at the end, I said I didn't want any pay, I just wanted access to the observatory. So they said OK, we will pay you, and give you access!" Now, Claudio is in charge of the restoration of these historical telescopes. For over 20 years, he's used the Vatican's former research telescopes at his leisure, and let me tell you, these guys are big. But we'll get to that.
Palazzo Gandolfo is the former residence of the emperor Diocletian. Now the Pope lives here, along with a team of astronomer-priests who conduct their research. Claudio briefly lets us out of the car for us to enjoy the gardens.
Inside the astronomer's quarters is display case after display case of truly extraordinary materials. Apollo aged autographs signed by Gene Cernan, a meteorite that came from Mars, original copies of Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, and Kepler.
There is something sacred about looking at one of the first ever sketches of Earth revolving around the Sun. Science and religion have had a rocky relationship in the distant past (just ask Galileo and Copernicus), but the stance of a spiritual astronomer is very wise. Studying the mysteries of nature is one of the important ways that we can understand the divine around us. There is nothing incompatible about exploring science and exploring faith at the same time.
Claudio leads us up to the first dome. Inside is an enormous reflector. So big we couldn't get it into any one picture. In the 1960s, a Pope purchased this telescope from his own pocket. Wow! It was once state of the art, and the mechanical components all impressed me immensely. In this room, the Pope himself watched the 1969 landing on the moon, and from where we stand right now, he addressed the world on the importance of this moment.
Next, Claudio led us to the second telescope, a double refractor, one visual, the other, for photographic plates. Claudio showed us the restoration. It's now controlled by a playstation controller! Claudio showed us the great difficulty involved in creating photographic plates. First, the telescope must cool down to the outside temperature, because the focus changes as it cools. This takes two hours. Next, Claudio charges a photographic plate places it in the telescope. He takes an exposure, then develops the plate, and checks to see whether all the stars are in focus. He makes any adjustments necessary, and then from there he can begin a longer exposure for the study of Nebulae. All in all, he can develop maybe three exposures in a single night.
Now consider this. Long ago, the Vatican participated in the first ever complete survey of the sky: the "Carte du Ciel". Observatories from all over the world participated, and systematically photographed every part of their sky that was overhead. From 1910 until 1921, the observatory created photographs of the skies. A team of three nuns operated sophisticated Zeiss microscopes, carefully turning precision knobs to record the positions and brightnesses of the stars in the sky. One nun measured the positions and brightnesses of stars on Zeiss microscopes. The second nun checked the answer on an identical instrument. The third one wrote it down. They did this for YEARS! In this time, if you performed tasks like these, you were called a "computer". All in all, they catalogued 481,215 stars. Again it makes you appreciate, astronomy is the delicate art of staring as hard as possible into the void of space, to maybe catch a glimpse further into the Universe than ever before.
At 12am, we board our train back to Florence, and sleep for a measly 4 hours aboard the train before arriving at the station. Astronomers have strange hours, but that's why we see such extraordinary things.
It's time to pay pilgrimage to the first telescope ever pointed at the sky, and its housed in the Museo Galileo of Florence, along with three floors of strange scientific instruments.
We enter the building and are greeted by a number of elaborate clocks. In fact, everything on display was elaborately decorated, sometimes with the Zodiac, sometimes with a family crest, an homage to the idea that science is also a delicate art. A spec of dust, a shaky hand, is all you need to ruin a measurement and arrive at the wrong conclusion.
Turn the corner to see a massive armillary sphere! An armillary sphere is a device that can recreate the apparent motion of the stars and the planets. Throughout Italy, we've seen these come in two flavors: sometimes the Sun is in the center, and sometimes, the Earth! The earliest known spheres date to Chinese astronomers in the 4th Century BC who used them to measure the positions of the stars.
At 11:30 am, we met with Karen Giacobassi, a didactic at Museo Galileo. She led us through a hidden door to her office (Italy has half a million hidden doors), where we shared ideas about sidewalk astronomy. We found out that Museo Galileo has brought telescopes out in the past, and we hope we left her encouraged to start it up again.
They found that it wasn't easy to schedule a bus to the darker hillside, watch the weather, cancel the bus, cancel the event, etc. Something the Moon Men have learned is that even in a light polluted city, the Solar System's most wonderful sights are still visible. I think Karen felt good knowing that the telescopes could get some use even if they were right outside the museum.
Then Karen showed us a special treat. Recently, they built a working replica of Galileo's telescope. We were fascinated by just how bad it was! The magnification is low, around that of a pair of binoculars. The field of view is small, because Galileo's design used a negative focal length eyepiece, and the image is dim because the lenses are small. At 20X magnification, this telescope wouldn't even be able to view the whole moon in one shot.
In 1610, this was state of the art. With the dark skies of the 17th century, and some patience, Galileo sketched maps of the moon's craters, disproving Aristotle's claim that the moon was a perfect sphere, used the technique of similar triangles (a technique that 10-year-olds now learn in math class) to estimate the height of the mountains, discovered Jupiter's largest four moons, studied the phase of Venus, and even had some theories about sunspots.
Just about everything in the Solar System that you can see through a telescope, Galileo saw it and studied it. Telescope technology exploded and within just 100 years, scientists were building telescopes that you could climb inside!
What an incredible impression you get of the ancient scientific methods when you visit a museum like this!
Later in the day, we visited Galileo's final resting place, and reflected on his mission to share the telescope's discoveries with everyone around him. Karen reminded us, he wasn't always successful. Plenty said that the Medicean moons were a trick of the eye, or some kind of optical illusion. Some wouldn't look through the telescope at all, the idea being altogether offensive. Just like the Moon Men, Galileo struggled to get people to look for themselves.
We are anxious to get back on our bikes again, but the rain continues to threaten us. So we continue our train rides through the Tuscan countryside. This afternoon we arrive in Arezzo, a town that I spent two months in, studying its art and architecture. Brains are strange things, the way they can remember exactly how to get to the bike shop, to the Piazza, to the one piece of Grafiti art you used to love.
In Piazza Sant Augustino, we stumble upon a group of students making flyers for a protest, "Fridays for Future". These are the climate change protests led by school-student Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Astronomy reminds us that the Earth is fragile. Astronauts who look down at the Earth realize that we all breathe the same air, we all drink the same water, and that Earth is our only home. The Moon Men tell this to everyone who looks through a telescope. We must take better care of our planet if we want to keep living on it. Philadelphia, please, we need a group of people who will protest our Fridays for Future.
We approach the students, "Cosa?" "What is this?" A man about our age, with a fantastic beard longer than his face, stands up and asks, "Are you the brothers with the telescope?"
How did he know about us? Did he hear about us in Perugia? It turns out that Federico was one of the Warmshowers hosts I reached out to, and although we did not stay with him, we still met him by this incredible coincidence. He was leading a prep session for next Friday's global protest, and loved our mission and message of unity. He announced to the students who we are, what we do, and told them this is a unique chance to look through a telescope. What an incredible experience, our arrival in a Medieval Italian town, heralded by someone who already knew of us!
It's true. Wherever we go, we will set up our telescope. We will show you the moon. We will show you the beauty of the Universe, and why it matters that we take care of this place.
We repaired Brendan's bicycle today.
The rack is the part of the bicycle that hangs above the rear wheel. It carries all our luggage. It is the handle of the suitcase. So when that broke, after days of rain and mountains, I was worried. Worry and positivity compete for space in every mind, and today I decided that positivity should triumph. We descended the mountain to find a bike shop.
Even when the first bike shop had no rack, we pressed onwards. Another one would. So we continued down the road, a bit anxious to reach a mechanic before every store closed for lunch.
We met a man who spoke no English, but who enthusiastically repaired our bicycles. 70 Euro is no big price for a full repair and tune up, it felt as nice as brushing your teeth after a chocolate bar.
And it's barely 1 pm. We ascend the hill again. A 600 foot climb poses no challenge to us at this point. And we regain the rest of the day to explore the beautiful hilltop town: Perugia. The entire city of 180,000 is as if it is built into the hill, into one building. Windows are filled in with brick. Buildings are built on top of their older versions. Staircases wind and twist into one another.
The air is warmer today and hundreds of people populate the piazza. It's time for the Moon Men to observe the late waxing gibbous. Our #25 red filter will help us show off the maria. We'll shoot to show 200 people tonight, I'll report tomorrow if we reach our goal.
We've reassessed our bicycle tour, and realized there are ways to avoid many of the impossible hills through the rest of Italy. We'll make better use of the trains, and pick up our tour again from Geneva, after the Alps.
I'd like to introduce you to Fontana Maggiore. In 1277 when Perugia was founded, this fountain carried drinking water to the top of the hill for the town to use. The fountain still gushes water from Piazza IV Novembre. Pink marble carvings depict the "Labors of the Month". In each panel is a drawing of the signs of the Zodiac, along with the activity that the constellations signaled. The stars in the sky are celebrated by this fountain, because they helped Perugians track the passing of the seasons and the best times to tend their crops and livestock.
The residents of Perugia placed the Zodiac on their drinking fountain, at the center of town, on a vital lifegiving utility.
The night sky has guided humanity for millennia. Before clocks, the clockwork of the sky helped us keep time. I almost imagine that it was easier to watch Orion set, than to mark days off a calendar in an age when most people could not read. This piazza has been a hub of Perugian social life for 700 years, and today it is well lit, even at night. A bright stadium flood light glares at Fontana Maggiore from across the square. Orion, Cassiopeia are not visible. In city's all over the world, we are losing touch with the night sky. That is why, in English, in Italian, in German, the amazement bridges any gap of culture or language. Telescopes are a reminder that the night sky can guide us still.
Here's what happened when we set up our telescope in front of this fountain on a warm clear night. Our telescope became a social spot all it's oiwn. People lingered because maybe they would get another chance to look, or maybe we would point the telescope at a new crater. A crowd formed around our scientific instrument, and it did not disperse for six hours.
We even met two families, by pure coincidence, that looked at the crescent moon in Roma! One family, their small daughter looked through the telescope again, held in her mother's arms. She exclaimed in Italian better than ours, and, filled with excitement, ran through the Piazza, waving our flag. I wonder how she will remember this childhood joy when she grows up.
The other family lives in Milano. They invited us as guests into their city, giving us restaraunt recommendations and telling us to set up in front of a statue of Neptune. So strange to make all these second meetings, and form bonds with these strangers. Spend more time in public spaces, and they will put you in touch with the interconnectedness of all humanity.
In the words of the original sidewalk astronomer, John Dobson:
"I'd like there to be enough telescopes so that the people of earth have a chance to see what the universe looks like. It doesn't look like anything like San Francisco on a sunny day, it's made out of hydrogen and helium, it's very dark. But people do not understand this unless they look through a telescope. The amateurs must solve the problem of making it possible for the public to have a look...I simply mean people who are willing to get their telescopes out...there would be a chance for most of the people who live on this world, but you have to get it to a place where the public goes. There's no use to get it out all by yourself in the desert and then lick your chops and go to bed. You see the importance of a telescope is not on how big it is... it is is how many people less fortunate than you got to look through it."