Mercury rises in the east-southeast shortly after 6 a.m. early in February, but you will need an unobstructed view of the horizon in order to spot it. During the last two weeks of the month, the little planet will gradually become lost in the solar glare.
Venus shines brilliantly as the Morning "Star" this month, appearing nearly halfway up in the west-southwest sky at sunset. It's impossible to see this planet's surface features because of the thick, highly reflective clouds, but radar mapping by several spacecraft has revealed a surface littered with volcanos and craters.
Mars rises in the east-southeast at about 7 a.m. at the beginning of February but about an hour earlier by the end of the month. On the morning of the 22nd, Mars Joins Mercury, Jupiter, and the slim crescent moon in a celestial "traffic jam" along the east-southeast horizon just before sunrise.
Jupiter rises in the east-southeast shortly before the sun and will appear higher in the sky each morning throughout the month.
Saturn appears in the southeastern sky in the late evening hours. The planet's rings are now very thin when viewed through a telescope. The moon will hover just below and slightly to the right of Saturn on the evening of Feb. 11.
"The two governing ideas of modern biology are first, the molecular basis of all life processes and second, the origin and evolution of all life processes by Darwinian natural selection."
- Harvard Professor E. O Wilson
Edward O. Wilson has been a Harvard professor for four decades, is the author of 20 books (two Pulitzer prizes), and the discoverer of hundreds of new species. He is widely considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, is referred to as the "father of diversity", and is certainly one of the most important thinkers of the last 100 years. He has called Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species "the greatest scientific book of all time."
On Feb. 12, the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. As an added cause for celebration, Feb. 12 also marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, who founded the National Academy of Sciences and who, like Darwin, was able to change the course of history.
Several months from now, in November, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's famous book On the Origin of Species will take place. This book rocked not only the scientific world but also society in general, changing forever the way in which educated people view their place in nature. Before Darwin, humans weren't connected to the natural world but were thought to be separate from it. Their religions misled them into believing that all humans remained unchanged from the day of their creation. During the 15th and 16th centuries, people were still being taught the old Bible myths which implied that the Earth was only about 6,000 years old. In fact, in 1654, misguided Archbishop Ussher of Ireland, using the genealogy in the Bible stories, declared that the Earth was created on Oct. 26, 4004 BC, at 9 a.m.. The Church, which at that time had absolute rule over people's lives, dictated what everyone had to believe under the penalty of death. Two ordained priests, Giordano Bruno and Lucilio Vanini, had their tongues cut out and were burned alive at the stake by the Catholic Church after admitting that they no longer believed the Church's teachings. Thank God that science, not the Church, now has the authority to teach about the natural world.
Today, scientifically literate people throughout the world realize, without a doubt, that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. This fact has been established by using well over 40 different radiometric dating methods, all of which are in agreement. Our understanding of this 4.5 billion year history of our Earth and of life's very gradual evolution has achieved the status of being a true scientific theory. Scientists working in the field of evolutionary biology, in all of the world's advanced countries, continue to discover the entire history of life on Earth, with help from experts in the fields of anthropology, anatomy, botany, and geology. Because the evidence supporting Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is so overwhelming, and because it explains so well the distant origins and fantastic variety of life on Earth, it is now universally accepted as factual, except by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who continue to believe in the old Biblical and Koranic myths. This rather small group is incredibly ignorant about science, and its members simply do not understand that Darwin not only changed forever the way in which humans perceive plants and animals, but he also revolutionized the way we see ourselves. Most progressive churches recognize the importance of evolutionary science. The Church of England recently issued an apology to Darwin both for initially misunderstanding him and for encouraging others to do the same.
Darwin's incredible observations and discoveries have been misinterpreted by a large number of people from the time of the publication of On the Origin of Species right up to the present. He never stated that we evolved directly from monkeys but that we do share a common ancestor. The Human species, Homo sapiens, diverged from other primates approximately 6.5 million years ago. The four key principles of Darwin's theory are:
1) Many of the differences between creatures of the same species are inherited differences. This is called variation. All living organisms produce offspring that are similar to but not exact replicas of their parents and these slight variations result in the ability to adapt to changes in the organism's environment.
2) More individuals in a population are born than can survive in the struggle for existence.
3) Some individuals in the same species will possess certain features or characteristics that give them a better chance at surviving and reproducing. This is called natural selection.
4) Some features that are beneficial to survival are passed on to future generations and gradually accumulate. Over vast periods of time, new forms of life will evolve due to these slow but steady changes.
One key feature that was missing from Darwin's theory when it was introduced in 1859 was an understanding of the important role of genetics. Fortunately, a priest by the name of Gregor Mendel developed the laws of genetics in 1865 while working with simple pea pod plants. He discovered that the gene was the basic unit that controlled natural selection. Then, in 1953, the double helix of DNA was unraveled. This was found to be the material from which the genes of all living creatures, from fruit flies to whales and from humans to ants, are constructed. Scientists are now able to carry out detailed studies showing the impact of natural selection at a molecular level.
During his round-the-world travels over a five year period on the HMS Beagle, Darwin was awed by the profusion of plants and animals that evolution had produced. Upon his first visit to a Brazilian rainforest in 1832, he wrote in his journal "Nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is." All of us are fortunate that Darwin displayed evidence-based reasoning using facts, scientific protocols, and logical analysis, instead of simply attributing the incredible diversity of life to the supernatural. By doing that, Charles Darwin was able to show us the truth.
Editor's note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association, the Southern Tier Astronomy Recreation Society, and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at www.martzobservatory.org or S.T.A.R.S. at www.UpStateAstro.org/stars/stars.html