A Brief History of Astronomy
Since basically the dawn of civilized human society, we as a race have been fascinated with the night sky. There’s no denying its allure and attraction, its gravitas (pun intended). Humankind has always been attracted by the unknown. It is the driving force that lead us to leave our homes and explore the world and ask questions of the trees, rocks, and the seas. We’ve been blessed by our Creator with a sense of inquisitiveness that no other creature on the planet possesses and it was given to us to fulfill the command given to our parents Adam and Eve to subdue the Earth and rule over it. As our understanding of the world we live on increased from names of animals to geography, to the use of tools, to agriculture, to navigation, and building, we have used our inherent curiosity to explore the world around us and our relation to it, where we fit in. Nothing baffles us and intrigues us as much as the heavens as we consider this question. All one has to do is look up and you get an immediate sense of how seemingly insignificant you are and you begin to feel very small and out of place, but stuck in wonder all the same.
As a Christian, I believe the Biblical account of creation as initiated by God who exists outside of time and called all things into being by the power of His Word. The Bible states that God simply spoke to the darkness and light burst forth. But while that’s all fine and dandy, it hardly satisfies our human desire to know why and how the universe began. We can conceive the “why”. Because God commanded it so. But I want to know how that happened and what that looked like! That’s what we’ve been trying to do for thousands of years every time we look up into the night sky. Understanding how creation happened and what exactly occurred during that time should lead us to appreciate and love the God of the universe all the more for the beauty displayed in the heavens and earth and the fact that He cares for us even though we seem so small and insignificant!
One of the earliest known evidences of man’s interest in astronomy and celestial exploration can be seen at Stonehenge in England. Although it is not entirely clear what the full purpose of the giant stone structure was, there are clear markers to record the Summer Solstice and a rudimentary calendar in place. Other ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians and the Egyptians also kept record of astronomical events such as solstices, eclipses, and comets. The ancient Chinese astronomers kept detailed maps of the skies by the seasons and also recorded the appearance of “guest stars” which ranged from comets to nebulae, and supernova. However, it wasn’t until the time of Pythagoras and Aristotle did astronomy really emerge as a science. Pythagoras is credited with being one of the first to develop a theory for the mechanics of the solar system, how the planets move about the sky throughout the year. Aristotle was the first to suggest the theory that the planets moved in concentric circles around the Earth, or orbits. Aristotle’s orbits were perfectly symmetrical and the order of the planets was mixed but it was a very good start. Unfortunately for the science, Aristotle’s geocentric theory (perfected by Ptolemy) held for over 1,500 years due to the misguiding of the Catholic Church until Nikolas Kopernig (Copernicus) shook things up with his model of a sun-centered solar system.
From Copernicus on major advancements in astronomy and physics arose in dealing with planetary sizes, masses, distances from the sun and each other. When Galileo Galilei invented the first telescope a whole new world of astronomy was opened up with the ability to see further out into space than ever before. Galileo also laid the foundation for discoveries in physics such as laws of motion and gravity that would later in the 17th century be cemented by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton is arguably the greatest physicist to ever live and left a remarkable legacy in the fields of science and math. He improved the telescope by using mirrors instead of lenses, invented calculus, and discovered the basic laws of gravity and motion which hold the entire universe together.
Now we in the 21st century are privilege to so much knowledge pioneered by those who went before us. It is on their shoulders we stand as we seek to further our understanding of the universe around us. Thanks to those pioneers astronomy is now a widely respected discipline and is readily available for all who would pursue it. If you’re new to astronomy there are many, many great resources available to help you gain a better understanding of the subject. All you have to do is Google it and you’ll strike gold!