University Lowbrow Astronomers

Musings of an Armchair Astronomer

by Lorna Simmons
Printed in Reflections:  May, 1999.

How did our earliest forebears get by without the Uranometria 2000.0 (Volume 1 and Volume 2)?  Or The Deep Sky Field Guide to Uranometria 2000.0?  Or the Cambridge Star Atlas 2000.0?  Or the Cambridge Star Atlas, Second Edition?  Or Norton’s 2000.0?  Or Sky Catalogue 2000.0?  Or Starlist 2000?  Or the Millenium Star Atlas (with stellar data in compressed binary format from the Hipparcos and Tycho Catalogues)?  Or the three-volume Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, complete with verse?  Or any of the various computer programs to make your celestial voyage pleasant?  You name it.  The ancients did not have it.  What did the ancient astronomers do without Wil Tirion?

Whatever it was that the ancients did, they did it very, very, very slowly.  They made up stories about the sky and the stars, perhaps to help memorize the positions of the constellations, perhaps for some other arcane reason.  Whatever.  They left few messages for us.  Some of the stories passed down by these ancients still persist to this day and we have their constellations, as a result of their efforts, to which we have added the rest of the constellations to make up the complete sky.  Astronomy is ancient and we owe much to ancient astronomers for their efforts.

Next time you are out in the boondocks and you look up at the sky (if the sky is clear - this is Michigan, you know), think about what you would have been able to do without your planisphere, without your telescope or binoculars, without your star charts, without your Telrad, without your CCD cameras, without your watch (do not forget your watch), without your filters, without your whatever - without any aids at all.  Pretend that you know nothing at all about the sky.  Notice that the stars seem to be floating slowly by above your head from east to west.  Some of the stars seem to stay in sight and seem to rotate around some central position which you may want to call ”north” or “south,” or some other fanciful alternate name.  Some of the brightest objects often change position and move backward with relation to the rest of the stars from month to month.  You would see the sky most definitely moving with these few outlaws breaking the rules of the sky.  Would you not think it was strange if anybody said that the earth was rotating instead of the sky?  Is it not perfectly obvious that the sky is moving and the earth is standing still?  Without a doubt!  After all, you do not feel the earth moving.  It is also perfectly obvious that the earth is flat, for that matter, and that the sun during the day and the stars at night simply float past and disappear at the horizon.  Where they go, you will never know.

Now, go back to the first time in your life that you first saw any stars and try to remember what it was that grabbed your attention?  I remember all of this when I was three years old, and I never forgot anything about that night!  I am certain that, if you were like me, you would have been awestruck.  If you were like me, you would have had this urge to find out what those bright lights were.  How did they get there, in the first place?  I cannot imagine any other thought as a first thought about the stars, unless, of course, you saw the Milky Way in its full glory!  Then, you would most definitely have been awestruck.  Out of your gourd!  Perhaps you would have been fearful, because, after all, The Galaxy is a truly magnificent sight to behold!  Awe-inspiring!  I remember my thoughts upon first viewing the Milky Way in its complete splendor.  I long to see it again, but the light pollution prevents this.

Do you remember how you first began to make sense of this wonderful sight?  Early humans did, but most of their ideas were wrong.  Nevertheless, these wrong ideas seemed to work for them to help with their attempts in understanding the positions of the stars on the sky.  When we look at the sky, we see it as the ancients saw it.  We do not imagine what is actually happening.  We treat the stars, the Messier objects, the NGC objects, everything in the sky, as if they are slowly passing overhead.  We sense (even though we know it is incorrect) that the earth upon which we are standing is stationary; we do not feel it moving.  Of course, the stars appear to be traveling past us in the sky.  This is the way it all appears to us, the observers.  How could any thinking individual come to any other conclusion?

Thankfully, some of our ancestors thought differently.  However, if you were to think otherwise at certain times during the history of humankind, you might have been burned at the stake, like Giordano Bruno.  You could have been put under house arrest, as was Galileo Galilei for promoting the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus.  Copernicus, himself, was smart enough to keep it all to himself!  He arranged for his ideas to be published when he was on his deathbed.  No martyr, he!  All brain!

However, even Copernicus was wrong.  Even Galileo was a little wrong!  Tycho Brahe had another idea about the movement of the solar system which had the earth at the center with the moon traveling around the earth, but with everything else (stars and all) moving around the sun.  Of course, we know this was wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Johannes Kepler, who worked for Brahe, got the brilliant idea that the planets moved in ellipses with the sun at one of the foci.  Do you think that he could get Galileo to believe in that?  Of course not!  Was it not perfectly obvious that the celestial objects moved in perfect circles?  Of course!  I have not mentioned the failed theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy.  In their time, these theories were very useful constructs for understanding the positions of the celestial objects on the “Celestial Sphere.”

Now, as you stand and wonder while your are looking up, remember how marvelous it is to live today, with so much knowledge and without the strictures which would prevent creative thoughts from passing through your conscious mind.  In addition, you can continue on to contemplate white dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes, blazars, quasars, the collapsing universe, the accelerating universe, even, if you prefer, the steady state universe, without a worry in the world.  Nobody is going to take you to the “funny farm” or burn you at the stake for having weird, unconventional, ideas about the cosmos.  Enjoy!  But do not forget to check them out.


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