MC lecture series spotlights NASA

Ancient calendars, how the days of the week got their names and other astrological potpourri were discussed during Bill Owen’s speech at Marietta College’s Physics Colloquium on Friday afternoon.

Owen also gave a community presentation Thursday evening.

He works in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA and is an active member of the JPL’s chorus. He presented “A Stream-of-Consciousness Tour of Four Millenia of Astronomical Terminology” in the Rickey Science Center.

Ann Bragg, planetarium director and associate professor of physics, said it was a treat to have someone like Owen speak.

“It’s great when we can bring someone in from the outside to expose us to different ideas,” she said.

Owen said astronomy is certainly very old and people seeing patterns gave birth to the constellations seen in the sky today.

“Astronomy is old; it goes back way more than four millenia,” he said. “What do you do at night when you have no lights…and only campfires? You look at the stars. They wander around, there must be something special about them. Stories start to spread about them and people are really good at finding patterns in things.”

Owen said the constellations in the north are not the same as those seen in the southern hemisphere.

“Most of the northern constellations are ancient,” he said. “They are all mythology. The southern constellations are quite different. They’re modern technology marvels-Telescopium, Microscopium…You’ve got a telescope and a microscope.”

Owen said originally calendars were done by the lunar cycle and months were 29 and 30 days long. Twelve months made a year 354 days. The Romans had a chief priest make a decision for when an extra month would be added to make up for the missing days, giving a 13th month. Eventually, this changed, ensuring that February, while one month, was in two parts.

“There were four months that had 31 days, the rest had 29 or 30,” Owen said, adding, “There were 23 days at the start of February and five days at the end of it.”

Owen said over the years the calendars shifted to what exists today, including Leap Year.

“I thought it was very neat,” Bragg said. “He certainly mentioned some things I didn’t know, like all the detail given about the calendars; it was interesting to hear that.”

Owen made the remark that if a scientist says “H-2” or “aitch-too” he could mean any number of things.

“It could be a hydrogen molecule, it could be singly ionized hydrogen atoms, in planetary science it can be a love number,” he said.

Owen said that astronomy is a multitude of things.

“Calendars, symbols, myth, it’s all there,” Owen said. “Astronomy is physics on steroids…You name it, it’s there. It’s all astronomy and it’s fun.”