History of Astronomy

Wednesday 20 September 2017 - 00:19:40 Posted by  Bobby

Looking to the Heavens

  Astronomy is considered by some to be the oldest of all sciences. Since the first emergence of Homo sapiens, approximately 200,000 years ago, thousands of cultures around the world have noticed the repetitive changing cycles of celestial objects and terrestial seasons, and sought to make sense of them.

  It is not so difficult to understand why the heavens created, and still create, so much interest and inquiry. The phenomena which shape the natural world, and which dictate the fate of humanity, originated in the sky. Lightning provided the precious gift of fire; floods had the power to take it away. The seasons, which affected the availability of food, were accompanied by predictable and repetitive movements of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets. Understanding these things greatly assisted humanity's survival.

  This information deals with astronomical beliefs, research, and discovery, from prehistory through to the 21st century. It notes the differences and similarities in the conclusions reached by different cultures, traces the gradual separation of astronomy from astrology, and records the terrible fates that befell some early astronomers who had the audacity to question the accepted wisdom. We discover why so many ancient cultures independently created calendars and zodiacs that were based on a 12 month cycle.

  Further, we map out and explain the important milestones and breakthroughs in astronomy, and the people who made them, from Plato to the under-recognized Aristachus, to Copernicus, Galileo, and beyond. The significance of various discoveries and their effects on our view of the world are explored.

  We also trace the development of observatories, from ancient times up to the present day. And we record the latest advances in astronomy and astrophysics, which shed increasing light on issues such as history of time, the nature of light, the future of the universe, and the sub-atomic nature of matter.

Stonehenge, in England

The massive pillars of Stonehenge in England were deliberately set out to mark alignments of the Sun and Moon. This sacred site was used for thousands of years by people who were very closely connected to astronomical cycles.

The Dangers of Astronomy

  Astronomy has often been a battle ground between the forces of reason and superstition. During the European Renaissance - which took place from about the 14th to the 17th centuries - the science of astronomy was a particularly dangerous profession. As it became apparent that the Earth was not the center of the universe, the reaction of most religious and political rulers was to "shoot the messengers" whose proofs rendered their geocentric, God-based world view untenable, for the basis of their power was exposed as a sham, built on a series of illusions. Astronomers (and other pioneers of science), under threat of loss of livelihood, excommunication from the church, torture, or death, learned to disguise their observations in cryptic form, or to withhold them until after their deaths. The heretical (and correct) revelations of the 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei were not recognized by the Catholic Church until 1993.

Harmonia Macrocosmica Atlas

   In 1660, the Dutch-German mathematician and cosmographer Andrea Cellarius published his Harmonia Macrocosmica, an atlas of how contemporary astronomers viewed the heavens. This color plate from the book illustrates Ptolemy's system of the universe.

The Big Questions

  Astronomy has enabled us to explain many events that have occurred since 10-43 of a second after the Big Bang, which - about 13.5 billion years ago - set in motion the universe as we know it. Yet much remains unknown.

  How did the Greek scholar Democritus, some 2,000 years before science proved him right, know that the universe is made of atoms, and that the Milky Way galaxy is not just a glow, but is made of billions of stars too small to be seen separately? Why did astronomical discovery stall for over 1000 years after Ptolemy's (largely incorrect) observations and thesis of the second century CE?

  Where is most of the matter in the universe hiding? (We know it's there, but we can't find it.) What happened before the Big Bang, if anything? Are there other universes? What lies beyond our universe, if anything? We know that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate - how could this possibly be? Can we find a way to escape before our Sun explodes, vaporizing Earth about 50 million years from now? Some of these important questions are answered here; others well perhaps remain forever unanswered, but there are obviously excellent practical reasons for humanity to persevere with astronomical research, quite apart from our propensity to seek knowledge for its own sake.

How did they do it?

  We can only surmise what people knew or believed before the advent of writing some 5,000 years ago; however, numerous artefacts dating from that era reveal that the science of astronomy was already advanced in many cultures. For example, Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, both constructed about 4,500 years ago, reveal a pre-existing, highly detailed, and precise astronomical knowledge. We know that their construction required devices capable of measuring earthly and celestial distances to an amazing degree of accuracy, and complex machines to enable the transportation and positioning of rocks of enormous weight. Sadly, no evidence remains as to how these awe-inspiring feats were achieved.

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