Star struck

The Prague Post

A new exhibit showcases Europe’s founding fathers of modern astronomy

Prague at the beginning of the 17th century was the place to be for artists and scientists. Emperor Rudolf II’s interest in culture and science created an atmosphere of learning and creativity. The fledgling science of astronomy made some of its biggest gains here in the early 1600s, thanks to visionaries Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

A new exhibition at the National Technical Museum is honoring Brahe, Kepler and the other founders of modern astronomy. “Machina Mundi: Images and Measures of the Cosmos From Copernicus to Newton” is a collaborative effort put together by the World View Network, a group of five European museums that have relics related to the astronomers.

They are Nicolaus Copernicus from Poland, founder of the heliocentric planetary system; Brahe, a Dane by birth, considered the best observer of his time, and the founder of astronomical observation and inventor of a number of instruments; Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer, considered the founder of modern astronomy and discoverer of the laws governing planetary motion; Galileo Galilei from Italy, a fan of Copernicus’ theories who is considered the founder of modern natural science; and Isaac Newton, a British mathematician, physicist and astronomer, regarded as one of the leading natural scientists of all time.

The exhibit aims to tell the story of how our modern view of the universe was shaped by these scientists, whose work had a lasting effect not only on science but also on philosophy, culture and politics. It has been traveling for almost two years. In addition to the traveling portion of the exhibit, each museum contributes part of its own permanent collection.

“Instruments from the department of astronomy at the Technical Museum will be on display as well — astronomical instruments like sextants and telescopes,” says Antonín Švejda, head of the museum’s department of exact sciences.

The exhibit begins in 1450 with “The Heritage of the Ancients,” which discusses the geocentric systems in use at the time. It moves along to “New Structures of the World,” when researchers in the 16th century began to question basic astronomical beliefs. Copernicus and Brahe are the big players in this era. Galileo’s invention of the telescope revolutionized astronomy, beginning with his many celestial discoveries. Finally, “New Physics of the Universe” describes Kepler and Newton’s contributions to a new understanding of the cosmos.

Along the way, observers will learn about the history of observing space and see some of the instruments these early pioneers used — vintage telescopes, sundials and globes. “Tycho Brahe didn’t even have the luxury of a telescope,” notes Švejda. “His exact catalogs of stars and maps were done with his own two eyes.”

Even if stargazing isn’t your cup of tea, the National Technical Museum is well worth a visit. “The museum has exhibits on transportation, timekeeping, the history of cameras and filmmaking, and one on acoustics,” says Jirí Zeman, head of the presentation department. “We are one of the oldest technical museums in the world.”

Kids will love the transportation exhibit, which boasts two planes, 13 trains and more than 30 cars parked or hanging in the main exhibit hall. The mining exhibit is also unique, with visitors able to walk through a portion of a mine and see the tools and machines used. Nearly every exhibit has some kind of old, funky instruments or tools to ponder. And with everything printed in both Czech and English, visitors are easily able to understand and enjoy all the museum’s offerings.

So take a trip back in time and see how things were done the old-fashioned way. A visit to the Technical Museum will be an eye-opening experience, in more ways than one.