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History of Astronomy

Astronomy from Ptolemy to Copernicus
Chinese and Chaldaen Astronomy
Galelei Galileo and the Telescope
Sir Isaac Newton and the Law of Universal Gravitation
History of AstronomyWe have our information about the earliest Greek astronomy from Herodotus (born 480 B.C.). He put the traditions into writing. Thales (639-546 B.C.) is said to have predicted an eclipse, which caused much alarm, and ended the battle between the Medes and Lydians. Airy fixed the date May 28th, 585 B.C. But other modern astronomers give different dates. Thales went to Egypt to study science, and learnt from its priests the length of the year (which was kept a profound secret!), and the signs of the zodiac, and the positions of the solstices. He held that the sun, moon, and stars are not mere spots on the heavenly vault, but solids; that the moon derives her light from the sun, and that this fact explains her phases; that an eclipse of the moon happens when the earth cuts off the sun’s light from her. He supposed the earth to be flat, and to float upon water. He determined the ratio of the sun’s diameter to its orbit, and apparently made out the diameter correctly as half a degree. He left nothing in writing.

His successors, Anaximander (610-547 B.C.) and Anaximenes (550-475 B.C.), held absurd notions about the sun, moon, and stars, while Heraclitus (540-500 B.C.) supposed that the stars were lighted each night like lamps, and the sun each morning. Parmenides supposed the earth to be a sphere.

Pythagoras (569-470 B.C.) visited Egypt to study science. He deduced his system, in which the earth revolves in an orbit, from fantastic first principles, of which the following are examples: “The circular motion is the most perfect motion,” “Fire is more worthy than earth,” “Ten is the perfect number.” He wrote nothing, but is supposed to have said that the earth, moon, five planets, and fixed stars all revolve round the sun, which itself revolves round an imaginary central fire called the Antichthon. Copernicus in the sixteenth century claimed Pythagoras as the founder of the system which he, Copernicus, revived.

Anaxagoras (born 499 B.C.) studied astronomy in Egypt. He explained the return of the sun to the east each morning by its going under the flat earth in the night. He held that in a solar eclipse the moon hides the sun, and in a lunar eclipse the moon enters the earth’s shadow—both excellent opinions. But he entertained absurd ideas of the vortical motion of the heavens whisking stones into the sky, there to be ignited by the fiery firmament to form stars. He was prosecuted for this unsettling opinion, and for maintaining that the moon is an inhabited earth. He was defended by Pericles (432 B.C.).

Solon dabbled, like many others, in reforms of the calendar. The common year of the Greeks originally had 360 days—twelve months of thirty days. Solon’s year was 354 days. It is obvious that these erroneous years would, before long, remove the summer to January and the winter to July. To prevent this it was customary at regular intervals to intercalate days or months. Meton (432 B.C.) introduced a reform based on the 19-year cycle. This is not the same as the Egyptian and Chaldean eclipse cycle called Saros of 223 lunations, or a little over eighteen years. The Metonic cycle is 235 lunations or nineteen years, after which period the sun and moon occupy the same position relative to the stars. It is still used for fixing the date of Easter, the number of the year in Melon’s cycle being the golden number of our prayer-books. Melon’s system divided the 235 lunations into months of thirty days and omitted every sixty-third day. Of the nineteen years, twelve had twelve months and seven had thirteen months.

Callippus (330 B.C.) used a cycle four times as long, 940 lunations, but one day short of Melon’s 76 years. This was more correct.

Eudoxus (406-350 B.C.) is said to have travelled with Plato in Egypt. He made astronomical observations in Asia Minor, Sicily, and Italy, and described the starry heavens divided into constellations. His name is connected with a planetary theory which as generally stated sounds most fanciful. He imagined the fixed stars to be on a vault of heaven; and the sun, moon, and planets to be upon similar vaults or spheres, twenty-six revolving spheres in all, the motion of each planet being resolved into its components, and a separate sphere being assigned for each component motion. Callippus (330 B.C.) increased the number to thirty-three. It is now generally accepted that the real existence of these spheres was not suggested, but the idea was only a mathematical conception to facilitate the construction of tables for predicting the places of the heavenly bodies.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) summed up the state of astronomical knowledge in his time, and held the earth to be fixed in the centre of the world.

Nicetas, Heraclides, and Ecphantes supposed the earth to revolve on its axis, but to have no orbital motion.

The short epitome so far given illustrates the extraordinary deductive methods adopted by the ancient Greeks. But they went much farther in the same direction. They seem to have been in great difficulty to explain how the earth is supported, just as were those who invented the myth of Atlas, or the Indians with the tortoise. Thales thought that the flat earth floated on water. Anaxagoras thought that, being flat, it would be buoyed up and supported on the air like a kite. Democritus thought it remained fixed, like the donkey between two bundles of hay, because it was equidistant from all parts of the containing sphere, and there was no reason why it should incline one way rather than another. Empedocles attributed its state of rest to centrifugal force by the rapid circular movement of the heavens, as water is stationary in a pail when whirled round by a string. Democritus further supposed that the inclination of the flat earth to the ecliptic was due to the greater weight of the southern parts owing to the exuberant vegetation.

For further references to similar efforts of imagination the reader is referred to Sir George Cornwall Lewis’s Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients; London, 1862. His list of authorities is very complete, but some of his conclusions are doubtful. At p. 113 of that work he records the real opinions of Socrates as set forth by Xenophon; and the reader will, perhaps, sympathise with Socrates in his views on contemporary astronomy:

With regard to astronomy he [Socrates] considered a knowledge of it desirable to the extent of determining the day of the year or month, and the hour of the night, ... but as to learning the courses of the stars, to be occupied with the planets, and to inquire about their distances from the earth, and their orbits, and the causes of their motions, he strongly objected to such a waste of valuable time. He dwelt on the contradictions and conflicting opinions of the physical philosophers, ... and, in fine, he held that the speculators on the universe and on the laws of the heavenly bodies were no better than madmen

Plato (born 429 B.C.), the pupil of Socrates, the fellow-student of Euclid, and a follower of Pythagoras, studied science in his travels in Egypt and elsewhere. He was held in so great reverence by all learned men that a problem which he set to the astronomers was the keynote to all astronomical investigation from this date till the time of Kepler in the sixteenth century. He proposed to astronomers the problem of representing the courses of the planets by circular and uniform motions.

Systematic observation among the Greeks began with the rise of the Alexandrian school. Aristillus and Timocharis set up instruments and fixed the positions of the zodiacal stars, near to which all the planets in their orbits pass, thus facilitating the determination of planetary motions. Aristarchus (320-250 B.C.) showed that the sun must be at least nineteen times as far off as the moon, which is far short of the mark. He also found the sun’s diameter, correctly, to be half a degree. Eratosthenes (276-196 B.C.) measured the inclination to the equator of the sun’s apparent path in the heavens—i.e., he measured the obliquity of the ecliptic, making it 23° 51’, confirming our knowledge of its continuous diminution during historical times. He measured an arc of meridian, from Alexandria to Syene (Assuan), and found the difference of latitude by the length of a shadow at noon, summer solstice. He deduced the diameter of the earth, 250,000 stadia. Unfortunately, we do not know the length of the stadium he used.

Hipparchus (190-120 B.C.) may be regarded as the founder of observational astronomy. He measured the obliquity of the ecliptic, and agreed with Eratosthenes. He altered the length of the tropical year from 365 days, 6 hours to 365 days, 5 hours, 53 minutes—still four minutes too much. He measured the equation of time and the irregular motion of the sun; and allowed for this in his calculations by supposing that the centre, about which the sun moves uniformly, is situated a little distance from the fixed earth. He called this point the excentric. The line from the earth to the “excentric” was called the line of apses. A circle having this centre was called the equant, and he supposed that a radius drawn to the sun from the excentric passes over equal arcs on the equant in equal times. He then computed tables for predicting the place of the sun.

He proceeded in the same way to compute Lunar tables. Making use of Chaldaean eclipses, he was able to get an accurate value of the moon’s mean motion. [Halley, in 1693, compared this value with his own measurements, and so discovered the acceleration of the moon’s mean motion. This was conclusively established, but could not be explained by the Newtonian theory for quite a long time.] He determined the plane of the moon’s orbit and its inclination to the ecliptic. The motion of this plane round the pole of the ecliptic once in eighteen years complicated the problem. He located the moon’s excentric as he had done the sun’s. He also discovered some of the minor irregularities of the moon’s motion, due, as Newton’s theory proves, to the disturbing action of the sun’s attraction.

In the year 134 B.C. Hipparchus observed a new star. This upset every notion about the permanence of the fixed stars. He then set to work to catalogue all the principal stars so as to know if any others appeared or disappeared. Here his experiences resembled those of several later astronomers, who, when in search of some special object, have been rewarded by a discovery in a totally different direction. On comparing his star positions with those of Timocharis and Aristillus he found no stars that had appeared or disappeared in the interval of 150 years; but he found that all the stars seemed to have changed their places with reference to that point in the heavens where the ecliptic is 90 degrees from the poles of the earth—i.e., the equinox. He found that this could be explained by a motion of the equinox in the direction of the apparent diurnal motion of the stars. This discovery of precession of the equinoxes, which takes place at the rate of 52".1 every year, was necessary for the progress of accurate astronomical observations. It is due to a steady revolution of the earth’s pole round the pole of the ecliptic once in 26,000 years in the opposite direction to the planetary revolutions.

Hipparchus was also the inventor of trigonometry, both plane and spherical. He explained the method of using eclipses for determining the longitude.

In connection with Hipparchus’ great discovery it may be mentioned that modern astronomers have often attempted to fix dates in history by the effects of precession of the equinoxes. (1) At about the date when the Great Pyramid may have been built y Draconis was near to the pole, and must have been used as the pole-star. In the north face of the Great Pyramid is the entrance to an inclined passage, and six of the nine pyramids at Gizeh possess the same feature; all the passages being inclined at an angle between 26 and 27 degrees to the horizon and in the plane of the meridian. It also appears that 4,000 years ago — i.e., about 2100 B.C. — an observer at the lower end of the passage would be able to see γ Draconis, the then pole-star, at its lower culmination.[1] It has been suggested that the passage was made for this purpose. On other grounds the date assigned to the Great Pyramid is 2123 B.C.

(2) The Chaldaeans gave names to constellations now invisible from Babylon which would have been visible in 2000 B.C., at which date it is claimed that these people were studying astronomy.

(3) In the Odyssey, Calypso directs Odysseus, in accordance with Phoenician rules for navigating the Mediterranean, to keep the Great Bear “ever on the left as he traversed the deep” when sailing from the pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) to Corfu. Yet such a course taken now would land the traveller in Africa. Odysseus is said in his voyage in springtime to have seen the Pleiades and Arcturus setting late, which seemed to early commentators a proof of Homer’s inaccuracy. Likewise Homer, both in the Odyssey (v. 272-5) and in the Iliad (xviii. 489), asserts that the Great Bear never set in those latitudes. Now it has been found that the precession of the equinoxes explains all these puzzles; shows that in springtime on the Mediterranean the Bear was just above the horizon, near the sea but not touching it, between 750 B.C. and 1000 B.C.; and fixes the date of the poems, thus confirming other evidence, and establishing Homer’s character for accuracy.

(4) The orientation of Egyptian temples and Druidical stones is such that possibly they were so placed as to assist in the observation of the heliacal risings [4] of certain stars. If the star were known, this would give an approximate date. Up to the present the results of these investigations are far from being conclusive.

Ptolemy (130 A.D.) wrote the Suntaxis, or Almagest, which includes a cyclopedia of astronomy, containing a summary of knowledge at that date. We have no evidence beyond his own statement that he was a practical observer. He theorised on the planetary motions, and held that the earth is fixed in the centre of the universe. He adopted the excentric and equant of Hipparchus to explain the unequal motions of the sun and moon. He adopted the epicycles and deferents which had been used by Apollonius and others to explain the retrograde motions of the planets. We, who know that the earth revolves round the sun once in a year, can understand that the apparent motion of a planet is only its motion relative to the earth. If, then, we suppose the earth fixed and the sun to revolve round it once a year, and the planets each in its own period, it is only necessary to impose upon each of these an additional annual motion to enable us to represent truly the apparent motions. This way of looking at the apparent motions shows why each planet, when nearest to the earth, seems to move for a time in a retrograde direction. The attempts of Ptolemy and others of his time to explain the retrograde motion in this way were only approximate. Let us suppose each planet to have a bar with one end centred at the earth. If at the other end of the bar one end of a shorter bar is pivotted, having the planet at its other end, then the planet is given an annual motion in the secondary circle (the epicycle), whose centre revolves round the earth on the primary circle (the deferent), at a uniform rate round the excentric. Ptolemy supposed the centres of the epicycles of Mercury and Venus to be on a bar passing through the sun, and to be between the earth and the sun. The centres of the epicycles of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were supposed to be further away than the sun. Mercury and Venus were supposed to revolve in their epicycles in their own periodic times and in the deferent round the earth in a year. The major planets were supposed to revolve in the deferent round the earth in their own periodic times, and in their epicycles once in a year.

It did not occur to Ptolemy to place the centres of the epicycles of Mercury and Venus at the sun, and to extend the same system to the major planets. Something of this sort had been proposed by the Egyptians (we are told by Cicero and others), and was accepted by Tycho Brahe; and was as true a representation of the relative motions in the solar system as when we suppose the sun to be fixed and the earth to revolve.

The cumbrous system advocated by Ptolemy answered its purpose, enabling him to predict astronomical events approximately. He improved the lunar theory considerably, and discovered minor inequalities which could be allowed for by the addition of new epicycles. We may look upon these epicycles of Apollonius, and the excentric of Hipparchus, as the responses of these astronomers to the demand of Plato for uniform circular motions. Their use became more and more confirmed, until the seventeenth century, when the accurate observations of Tycho Brahe enabled Kepler to abolish these purely geometrical makeshifts, and to substitute a system in which the sun became physically its controller.