An Overview of the Science of Astronomy

When humans first looked to the sky and wondered at its power, to bring light and to take it away, the science of astronomy was born. But long before the observations of the heavens came to be known as science, there were myths and legends.

Early humans could not have comprehended the movement of the Earth. For them, it was the sun and the moon that traveled across the sky. The brilliant lights in the sky were gods, or ancestors, or beings of another world.

As humans began to associate the changing lights and positions of the celestial bodies with changes in weather and the natural world around them, their approach to their observations changed. They learned to be more aware, more precise, and ultimately more knowledgeable.

Astronomy is rooted in astrology. These early interpretations of the stars and planets, the sun and moon, were a mix of logical hypotheses and ancient stories.

Astronomy became more independent of astrology long after the birth of Christ. One of the major discussions within the realm of astronomical science was the Earth’s position relative to the sun. Was the Earth the center of the universe, and the sun its satellite, or was the sun at the center, and the Earth circled this star?

Nicholas Copernicus was certain the Earth circled the sun, but waited until 1543, the year he died, to publish his theory. The church would have pronounced him a heretic. Galileo, in 1564 made discoveries that supported the concept of the Earth’s rotation around the sun, but the church would not hear of it. Astronomy as a science was at odds with the predominant religious beliefs of the day.

But the evidence just kept coming. Men of science forged ahead and ultimately, the belief that the Earth was a planet rotating around the sun and the sun was stationary won out.

But what of the populations in the Far East? What of their history of the science of astronomy?

Long before the birth of Christ, in Mesopotamia, there were Chaldeans. They were the mathematicians, the astrologers, the readers of the heavens. They kept systematic records of the movements of the celestial bodies, and used water clocks to measure the length of daylight. So detailed became their observations, they could be used to predict the motions of the planets.

The ancient Greeks applied geometry to explain the relationships between the sun and moon, the Earth and the stars. The Chinese, like the Chaldeans, kept intricate and detailed records. As early as 2000 BC, the Chinese determined that Jupiter required 12 years to orbit the sun.

As myths and legends began to fade and the sciences became the guiding force for progress, astronomy moved from a science of observation and mathematics to one of technology.

By the 1960’s, humans were preparing to go to the moon.

Today, spacecraft sent from the Earth have observed the surface of Mars. The Hubble Telescope has sent back images from the depths of space. Astronomy, and all sciences associated with it, is hi-tech and putting more spacecraft and more people into the heavens.

Astronomy is an old, ancient science. But it is only now, in this last century, that humans have found their way into the heavens. Astronomy, now, is a new science, with new theories to develop and old stories to tell.