Mars continues its high season of observability, indeed is still coming slightly nearer than it was at opposition a few days ago, as well as being free of the Full Moon’s glare.
This will look to you like an unfamiliar way of showing the travels of Mars in space:
That’s because it is geocentric. The Earth, instead of the Sun, is held still. Here is the more familiar heliocentric, or Sun-centered, picture, more or less as shown in the Mars section of Astronomical Calendar 2016.
(I hope these pictures now show for you at good size. For me, it means right-click. “view image”, click.)
In both pictures, Mars’s course is in red for 2016, yellow for 2017. Grid lines at intervals of 1 astronomical unit (Sun-Earth distance) serve to indicate the ecliptic plane. The zodiacal constellations, drawn on an imaginary sphere, serve to show directions out into the universe. The dashed line is along the view from Earth to Mars at opposition, 2016 May 22.
2016 is an opposition year, in which Mars comes closest to us; 2017 is the contrasting kind of year, in which Mars is mostly far from us beyond the Sun. Maybe I could start calling them “red years” and “yellow years.”
I wish I could make an animation, so as to show you the lively difference between these two ways of representing the Mars-track, as when I superimpose these two pictures on my screen and flip between them. Well, here is the next best, the two in one picture.
The heliocentric representation is the true one, right?
Primitive mankind assumed that Earth lies still and the things in the sky move, but now we’re scientific and we know that both Earth and Mars move around the Sun.
Yes, we know it because we’ve been taught it, but it’s not what we experience with our senses. To live is to witness the Sun taking its course across our sky. To live and look up is to see the Moon, stars, and planets taking their courses across our sky in their curiously different manners. To see Mars is to see it now near, now far, in curiously looping motion.
There is a school of thought that would bring back some of our respect for the older, more instinctual way of looking at the world.
Goethe, whose status in German literature is like Shakespeare’s in English, was not only poet, novelist, and civil servant but an independent scientific thinker, brilliant though outside the professional stream. His philosophy of science was what was later called Phänomenologie. Phenomena (from Greek phainein, “to show”) are the things that “are shown,” that “appear.”
Rudolf Steiner. who lived about a century later than Goethe, developed a spiritual system that he called anthroposophy, and he based the scientific part of it on Goethe’s phenomenology. The Goetheanum, designed by Steiner as the center for his anthroposophical movement, is a mountain-shaped building at Dornach near Basel in Switzerland. I may have a drawing of it among those I can’t at present find, because I once worked briefly as a stagehand (Kulissenschieber, “scenery-shover”) in its immense theater. I had been invited by a gentle Dane whom I had met at another kind of theater, an ancient one, in Athens; he was a teacher in one of the Waldorf schools, which use Steiner’s system of education.
There is one of these Waldorf schools at King’s Langley, near where my parents used to live in England, and it was there, if I remember rightly, that Norman Davidson taught before he moved to New York. He is the author of Astronomy and the Imagination and Sky Phenomena: a Guide to Naked-Eye Observation. When he saw my Astronomical Companion, he gently criticized my division of astronomy (in the opening pages) into the Apparent and the Real. He preferred less biased terms such as Earth-oriented vs. Space-oriented. I considered bowing to him. But such terms aren’t so clear. And a phenomenologist need not object to “The Apparent.” And “The Real” could be, for anybody, a depth we push toward and may never arrive at.
I don’t think this school of thought denies the physical reality of the Earth’s motion around the Sun; but it feels that what we sense is another kind of reality.
Once, Sky & Telescope got me to write a review of a book called Movement and Rhythm of the Stars, by Joachim Schultz. He had been astronomer at the Goetheanum, therefore a disciple of Goethe and Steiner. One of the strands in Schultz’s book was alternative, often delightfully intricate, ways of plotting movements, especially these patterns traced by planets in relation to the Earth. This set me figuring how to make geocentric plots myself. I used them alongside my usual heliocentric sphere-diagrams in Astronomical Calendars 1988 and 1989, before deciding they used too much space. I may try some more of the kind here.