THE BIRTH OF ASTRONOMY

Up until 500 years ago, people thought the world was flat. In 1609, Galileo Galilei made his first telescope and looked at the moons of Jupiter, lunar craters, and thousands of faint stars in the Milky Way. His telescope may have been of low power, but it opened a door to discovery. The history of Astronomy up to Galileo's telescope and Newton's mathematical formulae is more fascinating than the history of any other branch of science, and by tracing its progress it is possible to gain a better understanding of the Earth, planets, and stars. In the previous section, we looked at very ancient archaeological astronomy sites and how the development of the calendar and navigation tools gave birth to civilization. Now we will focus our attention on the cradle of civilization ... Mesopotamia and nearby nations to see how Astronomy grew from mythological worship to a natural understanding of celestial motion.


The early peoples thought the earth was flat and that the entire sky revolved around it. This is still quite obvious to anyone who looks outside. After all, the earth does not look rounded. A ball will not roll indefinitely on the curved surface. The earth cannot be spinning, or we would feel the motion and be continually dizzy. Everything MUST revolve around us, and since the students who are taking this course are typical high school students, it feels reasonable to conclude that everything revolves around you anyway. Even modern television weather forecasters refer to sunrise and sunset. Either they believe at the earth is in the center, or they are just too lazy to say, "The earth will rotate into view of the sun at 7:12 AM, and rotate out of view of the sun at 6:54 PM. They must still be members of the "Flat Earth Society."

Here are some of the basic questions asked by ancients:
Where would they expect the water go at the edges of the Earth?
Why should sailors never venture away from sight of land?
What might be at the edges?
What is underneath?
What holds everything up?


Vedic priests of India believed the earth was supported on twelve massive pillars. During the hours of darkness the sun passed underneath, somehow managing to pass between the pillars without hitting them.


Hindus believed the earth stood on the back of four elephants. These elephants rested on the shell of a huge tortoise, while the tortoise was supported by a giant serpent which floated on a limitless ocean.


The Chinese thought eclipses were caused by giant dragons which were trying to eat the sun. They would make as much noise as possible to scare the beast away. The entire population took part, shouting, wailing, beating gongs and pans to add to the uproar. Eventually, they came to learn that any eclipse is likely to be followed by another in 18 years and 11 days (a period of timed they named the SAROS). By keeping records, they were able to be prepared for the return of the dragon (not to be confused with Bruce Lee who starred in "Enter the Dragon," a truly fabulous karate movie featuring John Saxon and Bolo Yeung in inspiring Kung Fu action scenes, but this has nothing to do with Astronomy, but I like the movie and want to see if you might really read this stuff). One year, the eclipse came at an unexpected time and the people were caught unprepared for the dragon. So angry was the Emperor that he had his court astronomers Hsi and Ho immediately executed. I will try to keep you accurately informed of upcoming celestial events and thus keep you from attempting to behead me.

The Egyptians lined up their pyramids with Polaris, the North Star. This important fact helped us determine the approximate age of the pyramids by measuring the direction of the pyramid locations against the known location of Polaris many years ago (the stars appear to stay in the same location, but actually move slightly due to precession, and term which will be discussed later in the course). Other archaeologists contend that the Great Pyramid was aligned with stars in Orion because Polaris could not have been in the perceived place in the sky when the pyramid was theoretically built. No matter, the connection between these very ancient buildings and constellations just go to show how important the study of the night sky was to the ancient Egyptians.


Both the Egyptians and Chinese kept careful records, but neither tried to explain anything like comets, meteors, and planets. They thought these objects were divine.

The Israelites believed that their God created all things in 6 episodic days, and that the flat earth was in the center of the universe, while all else revolved around it. I cannot stress enough the relevance of the words you are about to read because they form a central argument that was used by Biblical scholars to support a "geocentric" (Earth-centered) Solar System for many, many centuries. One Biblical account relates a battle between Israel and the Amorites. In Joshua 10, the leader of the Israelite army, Joshua, prays to God to give more time in order to finish the battle. Joshua's prayer was answered when "The sun stopped in the middle of the day and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listenede to a man." (Joshua 10: 13b-14 NIV).

Hundreds of year later, Hezekiah was king of the Israelite tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Isaiah the prophet told this king that death was nigh. After a sincere prayer oy Hezekiah, Isaiah was told to report to the king that 15 extra years had been granted to the king's life. Hezekiah then asked for some sort of "sign" from God that would prove that this promise would come true. "The the prophet Isaiah called upon the Lord, and the Lord made the shadow go back the ten steps it had gone down on the stairway of Ahaz." (II Kings 20:11 NIV).

These two events that seem to indicate that the Sun was moving in the sky and that God had the power to alter the motion or even stop it completely were clear evidence to scholars of Judaism and Christianity that the Earth was in the central spot of the Universe, and that all else went around it. During the Dark Ages and up until the Dawn of Enlightenment, these two accounts (among other forms of scriptural evidence) were used by the powerful Church to put a stop to any thinking other than what the Bible seemingly had to say.

Of great interest here was the apparent announcement several years ago by NASA engineers that careful computer calculations revealed an extra 24 hour period when one should not have been there, and even the presence of an extra 40 minutes beyond this. Now that is certainly something to ponder, huh? Or, perhaps there is no real truth to the "missing time" story.

The Biblical account of creation is just as important to the struggle between scientific thought and adherance to religious convictions. At the end of each Biblical day of creation, "God saw that it was good." (Genesis 1:3, 9, 12, 18, 21, 25, and in verse 31 it's "very good"). While the Hebrew translation of this word is "good," it was interpreted by scholars as really meaning "perfect," because why would God not make something merely good and not truly perfect. The notion of a "perfect" Univrse at creation was a key reason for the acceptance of a system with circular orbits of the Sun, Moon, and planets all equally spaced from each other. Indeed, the leaders in Vatican City refused to believe what they saw through Galileo's telescope in the early 1600s because they were so convinced that the Sun and Moon were perfect as described in the Genesis account.

*** The websites that are inclulded in the preceding few paragraphs are the best that I can find that give students a sense of the history and debate, and are not intended here as a form of teaching science. I am simply trying to emphasize that the teachings of the Bible became a powerful source of argument against attempts at new sceitific inquiry through the first 1500 years of the last two millenia. ***

Stanford University has created a really wonderful website which explores many of the beliefs and explanations for celestial events in ancient history.
If you would like to learn more about ancient world cultural views of Astronomy, click on Solar Folklore and browse the site for interesting subjects from Joshua's prayer to Mayan worship of Venus.

There seem to be a great variety of thoughts about the Universe a long time ago (and these are just a few), but remember that these people were of the belief that events in the sky were mystical in nature and therefore to glorify their deities, they named many of the constellations after their gods or after objects which were important to them. In some civilizations, the myths were born in the mind first and then stars told the story, while other cultures saw stories in the sky and developed mythology to explain what they saw happening there. What do you see when you look into the night sky.

The Greeks were the first group to ask questions. Now this is typical of the ancient Greek philosophers, who spent hours each day on the steps of the Agora engaging in simple chatter, just like we will be doing on specified evenings. A fine example of this is seen in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" depiction of Socrates, one of the most famous of the Greek philosophers. If you cannot or have not seen this movie, you will have to imagine the scene of men sitting on the steps and discussing the natural world.

To learn what happened next in the history of Astronomy, move to Greek Astronomy, or return to the Introduction to the History Unit, the Syllabus, or the Home page.


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