Obsolete But Still Relevant

Under the direction of Friedrich Argelander (1799-1875), astronomers at the Bonn Observatory spent seven years (1852 to 1859) measuring the positions and magnitudes of roughly 324,000 stars, one star at a time.  This phenomenal work resulted in the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) catalog and atlas, which included stars down to approximately magnitude 9.5 and is a tribute to the foresight of Argelander and the diligence of his small staff.  The Bonner Durchmusterung was the last star catalog to be produced without the benefit of photography, and it is certainly the most comprehensive of the pre-photographic atlases.

Back in 2007, Alan MacRobert stated (Sky & Telescope, July 2007, p. 59), “Someday machines will measure the brightness of every star in the sky to some amazingly deep magnitude many times a night, and blind software will compile and analyze light curves automatically.”  No doubt, he is correct, but he does add that this has not happened yet, despite years of pregnant expectations.

But we are getting closer to that day, with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) scheduled to come online in 2022 and many other similar survey instruments in the pipeline or already operational.  That is one reason as an amateur astronomer with limited resources (including time) I focus on observing the occultation of stars by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects.  It is one of the few areas where an amateur observational astronomer can provide location-dependent observations.  You are either in the shadow path or you are not.  Though truth be told I would rather be studying exoplanets, we can only do what we have the resources to do—regardless of talent or potential.

History is full of examples of skills and techniques made obsolete almost overnight by new technologies (or a different point of view), but what is seldom recorded is the sense of desolation and indeed mortality experienced by those unfortunate enough to live to see that their highly-developed skills are no longer wanted or needed.  As my meteor-watching friend Paul Martsching has said, “It is good we don’t live forever: we are a product of our times.”  He realizes full well that someday automated systems will count every meteor above the horizon far better and more completely than any visual meteor observer can, but for many years he has carefully recorded meteor activity many nights a year.  The data he collects will always be relevant as part of the historical record, at least, and the sheer joy of being out under the stars and away from light pollution can never be replaced by a computer.  To us, astronomy is something much deeper than what can be delivered through a computer screen.

We are a product of our times, and as we approach the twilight (or autumn) of our lives we don’t necessarily feel compelled to embrace every new thing that comes along.  Peace.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.  Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.