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Astronomers of early civilisations performed methodical observations of the night sky, and astronomical artefacts have been found from much earlier periods. We take a look at some of the famous astronomers and scientific breakthrough throughout history.

Thales and the Eclipse of 585 BC

Thales of Miletus was the first to predict the year of a solar eclipse.

Thales of Miletus was the first to predict the year of a solar eclipse.

Thales of Miletus, born around 625 BC, is generally considered to be the first Greek mathematical scientist and geometer, and the probable inspirer of Pythagoras.

He is also said to have been the first to predict an eclipse of the Sun. Thales it seems had announced that an eclipse would take place in 585 BC, and the Greek historian Herodotus tells us that it actually happened. The mathematical basis of Thales's prediction is not known, though it has been suspected that he used the Babylonian saros of 18 years 10 days and 8 hours to do so.

Many modern scholars, however, are sceptical about the historical reality of this saros as understood by the Babylonians. Thales only appears to have given a year, and not a precise date, for the eclipse. We do know, however, that a total solar eclipse did take place on 28 May 585 BC.

Alhazen and the Effects of Atmospheric Refraction

The peculiar effects that the atmosphere has upon astronomical bodies as they approach the horizon have long fascinated astronomers, but a major advance in understanding took place in Cairo about 1000 years ago, when Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haitham), arguably the greatest Arabic experimental scientists of the middle ages, addressed himself to the problem.

An optical physicist as much as an astronomer, Alhazen wanted to know why the air first became bright when, from his own measurements made with an astrolabe against the last fading stars at dawn, the sun was still 19° below the eastern horizon. The concluded that the Earths atmosphere refracted light coming to us from astronomical bodies, distorting their shapes and colours, and even lifting their apparent images above the horizon when geometrically they were just below it.

Alhazen's remarkable researches made possible the development of both experimental and mathematical optics.

The frontispiece of the Latin translation of Ibn al- Haytham's Book of Optics titled Opticae Thesaurus, Alhazeni Arabis Libri Septem (The Optic Treasure, Seven Arabic Books of Alhazen) that was published in Basel, in 1572.

The frontispiece of the Latin translation of Ibn al- Haytham's Book of Optics titled Opticae Thesaurus, Alhazeni Arabis Libri Septem (The Optic Treasure, Seven Arabic Books of Alhazen) that was published in Basel, in 1572.

The latin frontispiece of Alhazen's Optics published in 1572, 533 years after his death.

Chinese Astronomers Observe the Crab Nebula Supernova

That slowly expanding cloud of gas in Taurus which we call the Crab nebula came to be seen by late 20th century cosmologists as a laboratory within which they could study what happens when a star explodes.

The Crab Nebula is an example of a supernova remnant

The Crab Nebula is an example of a supernova remnant

NASA/ESA

And while Greek and Arab astronomers noted the brilliant new star in June 1054, it was Chinese who left the most complete narrative o the 'guest star', in no less than five separate texts.

At first, the supernova was as bright as Venus, and could even be seen in daylight for the first 23 days, then it faded away over the next two years. When 20th-century cosmologists realised the significance of the Chinese record, they were able, using photographic and radio techniques, to reconstruct from this dated event exactly how a supernova remnant behaves in a given period of time.

Observing the Summer and Winter Solstices in 1570

Astronomy contains few conveniently round numbers - especially problematical when one is devising a long-term calendar - so the medieval Christian Church had problems in correctly fixing the movable date of Easter in any one year.

Being a spring festival, the date of Easter is governed by the appearance of the first full moon following the spring equinox. Because of the precession of the equinoxes, however, this date slowly creeps back over the centuries.

In the 16th Century several great Meridiana, or pinhole camera sundials, were laid out in the dark interiors of large Italian churches, such as San Petronio, Bologna.

The pinhole projections of the Sun's disk, sometimes thrown back 60m in winter, now enabled the winter and summer solstice angles, equinoxes and other solar orbital details to be measured so accurately that our modern Gregorian Calendar was made possible by 1582.

Galileo's First Telescopic Observations

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Galileos telescopic observations, for after his results had been announced on March 1610, the whole scale of astronomy changed, as scientists realised that there was a vast Universe out there that could not be seen by the naked eye.

Though Galileo did not invent the telescope, and other such as Thomas Harriot in England, had already used it to look at astronomical bodies, Galileo was the first to recognise its immense power to revolutionise ideas. Between December 1609 and February 1610, he discovered mountains on the Moon and the satellites of Jupiter, saw 32 stars in the Pleiades and would soon observer the phases of Venus and -arguably - sunspots.

19th-century painting depicting Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato in 1609.

19th-century painting depicting Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato in 1609.

Wikipedia

He used his new results to give a powerful 'spin' to the Copernican theory, as his observations opened up a Universe that could not have been imagined by the ancients.

Galileos observations changed man's place in the cosmos forever.

Today, Galileos telescopes are priceless museum pieces.

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