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