Astronomy for GCSE






Astronomy... 3. Through the Ages

In this section:
This page:
  • Aristotle
  • Eratosthenes
  • Aristarchus
  • Hipparchus
  • Ptolemy
  • Caliph Al-Mamun
  • Ulugh Beigh
  • Mikolaj Kopernik
  • Giordano Bruno
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Johannes Kepler
  • Galileo Galilei
  • Sir Isaac Newton
Page 2:
  • Robert Hooke
  • John Flamsteed
  • Edmond Halley
  • Christopher Wren
  • John Gadbury
  • William Lilly
  • Jeremiah Horrocks
  • Giovanni Cassini
  • Ole Rømer
  • William Herschel
  • John Herschel
  • John Goodricke
  • John Couch Adams
  • Urbain Le Verrier
  • Lick Observatory
Page 3:
  • Meudon Observatory
  • Yerkes Observatory
  • Mount Wilson
  • Observatory
  • Edwin Hubble
  • George Ellery Hale
  • Royal Observatory
  • Siding Spring
  • Mauna Kea
  • Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
  • Kitt Peak
  • BTA-6
  • Mstislav Keldysh

Page 4:

  • Whipple Observatory
  • Wyoming Infrared Observatory
  • United Kingdom Infra-red Telescope
  • Thirty Meter Telescope
  • Karl Jansky
  • Jodrell Bank
  • Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope
  • RATAN-600
  • and more

This chapter begins by stating "[The] ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Babylonians... did at least make accurate observations of the skies even if they were unable to interpret what they saw." and Moore does at least acknowledge that "the famous Pyramids are astronomically aligned" even if he is dismissive of their knowledge, as he is of Astrologers in the previous chapter.

"The Egyptians timed [the annual flooding of the Nile] by observations of the stars, particularly Sirius, the brightest star in the [night] sky."

Sirius is a binary star... It is known colloquially as the "Dog Star", reflecting its prominence in its constellation, Canis Major (the Greater Dog).

[It wasn't until] 1844 [that] the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel deduced from changes in the proper motion of Sirius that it had an unseen companion. On January 31, 1862, American telescope-maker and astronomer Alvan Graham Clark first observed the faint companion, which is now called Sirius B, or affectionately "the Pup". This happened during testing of an 18.5-inch (470 mm) aperture great refractor telescope for Dearborn Observatory, which was one of the largest refracting telescope lenses in existence at the time, and the largest telescope in the United States. Sirius B's sighting was confirmed on March 8 with smaller telescopes.


However, as Graham Hancock reports in his 1995 book Fingerprints of the Gods, that it is "suggested" in the ancient Pyramid Texts that Sirius [Sothis] is a "dual entity". Hancock asks the question "How could the scribes who wrote the Pyramid Texts possibly have obtained the information that Sirius was two stars in one?

He goes on to refer to Robert Temple's The Sirius Mystery where the study continues into the beliefs of the Dogon tribe of West Africa "beliefs in which the binary character of Sirius was explicitly described and in which the correct figure of fifty years was given for the period of orbit of Sirius-B around Sirius-A.

Hancock prefers to believe that the Ancient Egyptians gained their knowledge from an older civilisation, whereas Robert Temple is said to attribute it to extra-terrestrials.

Sirius has a radius 1.72 times that of the sun... [The] companion star, Sirus, B, is about as massive as the Sun, though much more condensed, and was the first white dwarf star to be discovered. [Source]

Still on the first page of our present book, Moore says "True astronomical science began with Ancient Greece." Again, he is dismissive of the extent to which the Ancient Egyptians (and others such as the Chinese) studied the night sky; I accept that they seem to have focused their findings on and put into use as Astrology, which science dismisses, but they certainly knew a lot about what we term Astronomy.

Whilst researching the above about the Sirius Binary system I found a news report about another, the "Demon Star" which the ancient Egyptians seem to have known about. I detail this on my Further Reading page.

"One man who was well aware [that the Earth is a globe] was Aristotle (384-322 BC)..."

A search on Google reveals this:

"Aristotle [also] believed the Earth was unique and that mankind was alone in the universe."

Eratosthenes became chief librarian at Alexandria, he "measured the size of the earth" and is also said to be the first to measure the tilt of the Earth's axis, but I think this is something else the Ancient Egyptians programmed into their Pyramid.

Aristarchus of Samos was born in 310 BC (Moore states he died in 250 BC whereas Wikipedia has 230 BC as the year of his death). He was an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who (it is said) presented the first known heliocentric model that placed the Sun at the centre of the known universe with the Earth revolving around it (rather than geocentric, that is, placing the Earth at the centre). Moore adds: "the geocentric theory held up the progress of astronomy for well over a thousand years."

Hipparchus of Nicaea, who lived about 150 BC, compiled a star catalogue [and] also [re-]discovered the phenomenon of precession, [which is] a slight yearly shift in the position of the pole of the sky aka the precession of the equinoxes. While you might think Pythagoras was the founder of trigonometry, Wikipedia tells us it was Hipparchus.

Ptolemy, according to Wikipedia, was both an astronomer and an astrologer. He wrote several 'scientific treaties', the first being the Almagest which speaks of "the apparent motions of the stars and planetary paths."

One of the most influential scientific texts of all time, it canonized a geocentric model of the Universe that was accepted for more than 1200 years from its origin in Hellenistic Alexandria, in the medieval Byzantine and Islamic worlds, and in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance until Copernicus.

Caliph Al-Mamun. It is then said that "little was added for a long time after Ptolemy's death, and astronomy - like other sciences - was in a state of hibernation. Then in the eighth century AD... Ptolemy's great book was translated into Arabic... The Caliph Al-Mamun founded an observatory and also a library at Baghdad..." [the House of Wisdom?]. Here is a late 15th-century copy [link]

Well educated and with a considerable interest in scholarship, al-Ma'mun promoted the Translation Movement, the flowering of learning and the sciences in Baghdad, and the publishing of al-Khwarizmi's book now known as "Algebra". He is also known for supporting the doctrine of Mu'tazilism and for imprisoning Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the rise of religious persecution (mihna), and for the resumption of large-scale warfare with the Byzantine Empire. - Wikipedia

Astronomy and astrology enjoyed the special interest of princes and the population as a whole. The court astronomers transcribed and further developed the Antique Greeks’ knowledge of trigonometry and the movement of the planets. Parallel with this work, a profound fascination emerged with astrology, or at least with its images. Innumerable art objects from the Islamic cultural sphere reflect this popular enthusiasm for the world of astrology.

The dichotomy between the Islamic doctrine of God’s omnipotence and the widespread interest in the natural sciences, philosophy, and mysticism could not help but lead to conflicts. Nonetheless, what could be called the “scientific golden age” of the Islamic world lasted right to the end of the 13th century. [source]

The last great Arab astronomer was Ulugh Beigh... In 1433 he set up an elaborate observatory [in] Samarkand and carried out valuable work... his observatory had no optical equipment - telescopes did not come upon the scene for another 175 years - but very accurate measurements were made with equipment used with the naked eye. Unfortunately Ulugh Beigh was murdered upon the orders of his son, whom he had banished on astrological advice... [his observatory was also destroyed at this time/in the same year but rediscovered by Soviets in 1908.]

Originally the walls of the observatory (described as a huge sextant [link]) were lined with polished marble.

Whilst reading Peter Tomkin's book Secrets of the Great Pyramid I could see similarities between the Grand Gallery there, which has been claimed/proposed by some to have been used for astronomical observations (supposedly before it was roofed over with the rest of the pyramid), and the Samarkand observatory.

Here is a comparative view looking up into the former, and down into the latter which originally had walls lined with polished marble (since removed, leaving the rough sides). The Pyramid is predominantly made out of a combination of limestone and granite blocks.

Mikolaj Kopernik. Or as we know him, Copernicus, is said to have "sparked off the great controversy" with his heliocentric or Sun-centred theory which he published in his book "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" (Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies) appearing in print in 1543.

Just 40 years later we have an Italian Roman Catholic prelate by the name of Egnatio/Ignazio Danti, who was also a mathematician, astronomer and cosmographer who served as a bishop (1583-1586). He was employed to move a great obelisk, stolen from Egypt, in the piazza of the Vatican. Danti’s primary assignment was to install instruments at the obelisk’s base that would indicate the solstices and equinoxes, and also the winds. [Wikipedia] [Book: Heilbron, J.L.: The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories]

Giordano Bruno. Copernicus was nervous about publishing his heretical work, and rightly so, in 1600 would be burned at the stake in Rome "partly because he insisted on teaching the Copernican system instead of the Ptolemaic." His "cosmological theories... extended the then-novel Copernican model. He proposed that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and... that these planets might foster life of their own, a cosmological position known as cosmic pluralism." Essentially, it was heretical to believe in E.T.s. He also taught about "the transmigration of the soul and reincarnation" which also didn't go down well. "Historian Frances Yates argues that Bruno was deeply influenced by Islamic astrology... Neoplatonism, Renaissance Hermeticism, and Genesis-like legends surrounding the Egyptian god Thoth." [Wikipedia] Right: His statue in Rome at the place of his execution [link].

Tycho Brahe is referred to as "a Danish nobleman and a “superbly accurate [astronomical] observer – much of the best of pre-telescopic time.”" Wikipedia reveals a little more:

Tycho was well known in his lifetime as an astronomer, astrologer, and alchemist. He has been described as “the first competent mind in modern astronomy to feel ardently the passion for exact empirical facts”.

For some twenty years “between 1576 and 1596, [Tycho] worked away at his observatory on the island of Hven, in the Baltic, and he produced a magnificent star catalogue, together with precise positions of Mars and the other planets as they moved around the sky.” You can read more about this at my blog post here [link].

Johannes Kepler < click to read that topic.

Galileo Galilei. The "great Italian scientist who was the first astronomer to make systematic use of the telescope..." perhaps to facilitate the making of astrological charts for rich people. [link]

Throughout history, scientific geniuses from Galileo to Newton have often believed in completely fantastical things — from astrology to alchemy to straight-up magic. Yet some of their bizarre ideas seemed completely valid to them at the time...

Galileo was also was something like a fortune teller. He didn't just believe in astrology: he practiced it and taught it to medical students.

(To paraphrase) he made a series of discoveries; "he saw mountains and craters on the Moon... he recognise what we now call the Milky Way... he discovered four satellites attending Jupiter and that the planet Venus has phases, or apparent changes of shape, similar to those of the Moon."

However, he "made no secret of his views, with the inevitable result that he was called to Rome, brought to trial by the Inquisition, and forced to 'curse, abjure and detest' the false theory that the Earth moves round the Sun. He was tortured... (and) ended his days under house arrest..." but (fortunately) he "was the last great scientist to be persecuted for 'heresy' of this kind."

Sir Isaac Newton. Described as "the most brilliant mathematician who has ever lived", Newton killed off the Ptolemaic theory and laid the foundations for "modern-type astronomy".

However the "study of the prophecies [was] one of his abiding interests. For a brief time, about 1663, he examined
judicial astrology..." - 'Never at Rest - A Biography of Isaac Newton' (1980) by Richard S. Westfall. Westwall goes on to say:

He sought as well to plumb the mind of God and His eternal plan for the world and mankind as it was presented in the biblical prophecies... in his Arian credo, that only the Father has foreknowledge of future events, indicated another dimension of Newton's early theological studies, the interpretation of the prophecies. Newton's interest in the prophecies, Daniel and the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, has been known since the publication of his Observations upon the Prophecies shortly after his death. It has generally been assumed that the work was a product of his old age, as the treatise published was. Nevertheless, references to the prophecies filled his early theological notebook. Already in the 1670s, he believed that the essence of the Bible was the prophecy of human history rather than the revelation of truths beyond human reason unto life eternal. Already at that time he believed what he asserted later about Revelation: "There [is] no book in all the scriptures so much recommended & guarded by providence as this." He put that belief into practice by composing his first interpretation of Revelation while engaged in his earliest theological study. It proved to be more than a passing interest..."

In his Principia he first published the laws of universal gravitation. He built the first reflecting telescope, and proved that what we call 'white' light is really a mixture of all the colours of the rainbow. While always remembered as a scientist he became Master of the Royal Mint, and played an "important part in revising Britain's coinage."

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