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Curtis-Shapley - Curtis/Shapley Debate 1920(this text is...

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The Size & Shape of the Galaxy Pre-Lab 11 1 Curtis/Shapley Debate – 1920 (this text is taken from the Web – http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/debate20.html) A Mediocre Discussion? “The Size and Shape of the Galaxy/Cosmos And the Existence of other Galaxies” Does it really matter that two astronomers debated each other in the beginning of the 20 th century? It is now clear that a once little heard-of discussion was at the crux of a major change of humanity's view of our place in the universe. The events that happened in the first quarter of our century were together much more than a debate - this is a story of hu- manity's discovery of the vastness of our universe, a story of a seemingly small academic disagreement whose dramatic resolution staggered the world. It is a story of human drama - two champion astronomers struggling at the focus of a raging controversy whose solution represents an inspiring synthesis of old and new ideas. It is the story of monumen- tal insight and tragic error. It is a story of an astronomical legend. Does this sound melodramatic? It s all true. And it happened this century. In 1920 Harlow Shapley was a young ambitious astronomer. He had published a series of papers marking several fas- cinating astronomical discoveries - many times involving properties of stars in binary systems or globular clusters. He was a rising star himself - a golden boy of astronomy. In 1920 Heber D. Curtis was a bit older, more established, and very well respected in his own right. He had published a series of solid papers on good astronomical results - many times on the properties of spiral nebulae. He was a `rock of clear thinking' to all that knew him. He was a hard worker usually taking the conservative view - frequently skepti- cal of anything new until proven to his exacting standards. By now you know they are going to clash in a historic debate in 1920. Do you want to know who was right even be- fore you know the issues? Was it the prodigy or the pro? OK, we'll tell you: they split. Each was right about some things and wrong about others. Shapley, the prodigy, made a monumentally correct deduction from existing astro- nomical data that our Sun was not at the center of our Galaxy and that our Galaxy was much larger than anyone had previously believed. Curtis vigorously opposed these views, but Shapley, like Copernicus before him, single-handedly moved the center of the universe, this time light-years from its old location. Harlow Shapley lived up to his potential. But possibly the biggest surprise came from the Curtis, the pro. Curtis was able to argue convincingly - for the first time from hard scientific data - that spiral nebulae were external galaxies and that our own Galaxy was only one of a vast number of galaxies, or `island universes'. Shapley saw this viewpoint as contrary to his large Galaxy idea. Curtis' accomplishment is impressive, representing an unprecedented redefinition of humanities concept of the universe, but he did not do it alone.
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