Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Beijing Day 12 - Beijing Ancient Observatory

The World's 2nd Most Famous Scientific Cat. Timekeeping for Nocturnal Party Animal.

sunny 11 °C

The Beijing Ancient Observatory locates above Jiangoumen subway station, which is right next to Yonganli station where Fraser Suites is located. It takes me 12 mins to walk from Fraser Suites to Yonganli Stn, but with a sub 10°C temperature and windy condition, I decided to take a cab straight to the Observatory. It cost  ¥12. The flag-fall fare (¥10) just ticked over.

Beijing Ancient Observatory
Beijing Ancient Observatory from the Highway
I do have a great  interest in astronomy, but more in the theoretical (and much more entertaining) aspects like Black Hole, The Big Bang, Twins Paradox, white dwarf, pulsars and whatnot (anything that helps me to understand Hollywood sci-fi flicks).

I'm not so much into astronomical instruments, which are bland and unexciting (I have yet watched a movie about astronomical instruments). Still, since it's in the neighbourhood, it's well worth the little trouble.

This is the oldest observatory in the world. And it built like 1 of those watch towers (only much bigger) that you would see in the Great Wall with the various instruments sit on top of it. You can easily spot these rusty ancient antiques from the streets.

Beijing Ancient Observatory admission ticket, Beijing, China
Admission ticket: ¥20

One thing that the astronomy enthusiasts would be glad to hear, this place is very quiet as it’s not your usual sightseeing spot (probably busier in peak tourist season. Still, I doubt it would ever be very crowded). I spent about an hour there, and saw no more than 6 visitors. Nothing unusual about that in other countries. In China, it's noteworthy.

Sundial, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Sundial with Arabic numeral markings
(click to enlarge)

The upside of sundial is that it’s green as it ‘powered’ by the sun; the downside is that it too big to put it in your pocket, and too heavy to wear it on your wrist. The sundial says 2 o'clock while the timestamp of the photo says, wait for it, 1:59pm. It still keeps pretty accurate time after a few centuries. If you look in the back, would you find an engraving of "Made in ancient China"? I wondered.

Sundial with Chinese time markings, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Sundial shows 2 o'clock

This Chinese sundial has Chinese time markings. The 2rd or middle ring marks the time of day. Chinese divides the day into 12 "hours". Each Chinese hour is represented by an animal zodiac. The same animal zodiac that marks each year. The innermost and outermost rings divide the Chinese hours into 2 halves, which equals to the duration of the hour that we use today.

The 2 sundials above are photographed within a minutes of each other. So they both should say 2pm. I read this as 3pm. But I think I just read it wrong.

While both China and Greek both came up with sundials independently, it took Chinese to come up with the moondial.

Ancient Egypt is a Sun culture because of its prominence in the dessert. It worship Ra the Sun god and built calendar using it.

Ancient China is a Moon culture. It uses a lunar calendar. It celebrates Mid-Autumn Festival by eating moon cakes (I love it), and entertained by the folklore of the Jade Rabbit (Yutu 玉兔), and the story of Moon Goddess Chang'e or Chang-O (嫦娥). Both of them live in a palace on the moon.

By the way, the Chinese lunar mission is called Chang'e in keeping with the myth of her flying to the moon, and its unmanned lunar rover is called Yutu.

The moondial was handy for all the nocturnal activities. It was not just for the benefits of nocturnal party animals, it was also for the many sanitary workers who disposed the city's wastes in the dead of night. A good timekeeping is important for a proper running of a city.

Ancient Chinese moondial
Moondial, Beijing Ancient Observatory
In ancient China, every night somebody would walk around the city streets, announcing time. It would go something like this, "It's 3 o'clock. Watch out for fire hazard". And the time-announcer would strike the gong a number of times that represents the hours. Any long-time movie fan of the wuxia genre would know exactly what I'm talking about. Where did they get the hours from? Moondial, I presume. What about moonless night? You got me there. They probably used something that doesn't rely on either sunlight or moonlight like the steelyard clepsydra. It's basically a water clock. In reality, I imagine they wouldn't just rely on a single tool, but used all these different tools for cross references.
Steelyard Clepsydra, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Steelyard Clepsydra in the exhibition hall of Beijing Ancient Observatory
Why do they put a bunny in the water clock? It's probably Yutu...Moon culture, remember?

This is probably the most well known scientific cat in Beijing. Maybe in the world after Cheshire Cat. Ok, this is just a physicist's joke. I see photo of this Beijing pussy a few times on the web.

It didn't seem to grin at me, if anything it looked half-apprehensive half-please to the attention of my camera. I'm uncertain about its mood. Apologfor another Quantum Mechanics joke.

The exhibit halls that highlight the Chinese astronomical achievement is of the most interest to me, as well as the Western influence on the development of Chinese modern astronomy.

Armilla or armillary sphere, Beijing Ancient Observatory, China
Armilla or armillary sphere

Astronomy is a science that occupies a special place in history. It's a science that dated far more ancient than the Scientific Revolution that started in 1543 when Nicolas Copernicus published his book titled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. So astronomy not only predates the Scientific Revolution for many millennia, it also marks the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

In the West, this Scientific Revolution came about because Copernicus dared to challenge the Church, which held state power in Medieval Europe.  Copernicus said that it was the earth that revolves around the Sun, not the other way round. For the Medieval people, it's hard to imagine that the earth could spin around the Sun without getting really dizzy. In fact, not only the earth spins around the Sun, it also spins on its own axis. In fact, it spins in more directions, and thousands of times faster than a ballerina. The Church found all these explanation dizzying.

Astronomical instruments, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Astronomical instruments, Beijing Ancient Observatory

Science is an enterprise of making a fool out of "common sense". The so-called "fact" gets in the way of the truth. Why didn't we understand it? And why don't we feel dizzy? The answers to both questions is that we're slow. Very slow. And why don't we fly off the earth as it spins? Because the earth sucks.

The rise of the West marked by the Scientific Revolution. Similarly, China as a leading scientific and technological pioneer was also marked by its achievements in astronomy. Astronomy was important in all major cultures because astronomy was an instrument (no pun intended) of religion, ironically. It was also astronomy that spearheaded by Copernicus, and then further developed by Galileo that eventually led to the downfall of religion in the West, which brought an end to the Dark Age. Borrowing a popular Chinese proverb, "water can support boats, as well as capsize them" = "水能载舟,亦能覆舟".

 Never mind light pollution that all modern observatories concerned with, with day like the one on the 1st day I arrived, you couldn't even see more than a few streets from here, let alone outer space.

Just as ironic, it's the progress of science and technology that causes light pollution.

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