From the August 2023 issue

Strange Universe: Celestial half-century medals

Can anything beat the last 50 years of astro-discoveries?
By | Published: August 16, 2023

Most of us know what works and what doesn’t. When my pal Seth Shostak explained to me how SETI hunts for possible aliens, the methodology sounded impressive even if success at locating ETs seemed as doubtful as scanning individual Super Bowl attendees’ faces at the turnstile and discovering that some are lizard people.

Launching Astronomy magazine in 1973 seemed to display a similarly implausible optimism. Was the subject popular with a broad enough audience? Would the magazine encounter competition? Furthermore, major publishing changes were afoot in the early 1970s. Long-established publishing houses were folding, and the initial transformation to digital was underway — a harbinger of today, when most people stare at screens. I’d just returned from four years overseas, post-college, and thought the new magazine looked amazing. But would it persevere?

Astronomy was born just before the first-ever U.S. landers, the Vikings, rewrote the Red Planet’s storybook. Then the Pioneers launched and went on to become the first crafts to permanently escape the solar system. They were followed by the Voyagers, with their exquisite close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and dozens of their satellites.

In the ensuing years, huge new telescopes were built. Exoplanets were discovered. As it turns out, the launch of Astronomy was accompanied by an exciting era of cosmic discoveries — perhaps the most exciting ever — where every issue was a portal into astounding new knowledge. But how could anyone have known that 1973 would be the optimum time to unveil a new publication that blended astounding discoveries with innovative, cutting-edge images? There was only one possible explanation: The editors were sent here from the future.

Science demands evidence! Very well. Let’s prove that these past 50 years really have been packed with an unprecedented number of mind-twisting discoveries, enough to overcome those unique late 20th-century publishing jinxes. How do the past five decades compare with earlier half-century historical periods?

Here are a few examples. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory, saying Earth orbits the Sun, and then 29 years later, Tycho Brahe discovered the brightest supernova in centuries. Or what about Dutch eyeglass-maker Hans Lippershey’s inventing the telescope in 1608, while Johannes Kepler completed his third and final law of planetary motion just 11 years later? Or Isaac Newton’s inventing the reflecting telescope in 1668 but arguably getting topped by Ole Roemer’s accurately measuring the speed of light eight years later?

There is also this game-changing pair of mind-rattlers that turned our cosmos upside down. In 280 b.c., on the Greek island of Samos, Aristarchus provided the first-ever estimate of the Earth-Sun distance. He also insisted that Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around. (He wrote this 1,800 years ahead of Copernicus!) And just 40 years after that, the guy in charge of the Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes, not only announced that our planet is round — a fact still disputed by internet conspiracy dummies — but calculated and published its circumference to within 5 percent of its true value. He used math alone, without ever once setting foot outside Egypt.

Those events might outclass John Dobson’s inexpensive “Lazy Susan” mount in the hot news department, but can they overcome the sheer swarms of astro-headlines that have kept us sleepless since this magazine first took flight? And could anyone but time travelers have predicted that astoundingly fecund half-century of revelations?

I’ll let you decide. Regardless, to my biased eyes, the magazine is beautiful enough for its ancestry not even to matter.