Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The History of Astronomy
The History of Astronomy

If you have a passion for star gazing, telescopes, the Hubble and the universe and this thing we call “astronomy”, you are far from alone. Of course, we know that astronomy is a highly respected science that has produced some of the most amazing accomplishments of the twentieth century. On top of that, it is a thriving area of fascination and one of the most exciting hobby areas going with thousands of astronomy clubs and tens of thousands of amateur astronomers watching the stars every night just like we do.

But did you know that astronomy is one of the oldest and most respected sciences of them all? As far back as before the times of Christ, the wise and thinking people of societies of the time were looking at the stars and finding ways to track and chart them. We who love the hobby of astronomy can chart a proud history of astronomers that tracks across millennia and through virtually every culture in civilization. So for the sake of having some really good trivia to toss around at astronomy club next week, let’s highlight some of the big moments in the history of astronomy.

For many centuries the science of astronomy was not distinct from the practice of astrology. For clarity, astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and the universe with a clearly scientific approach. Astrology is the study of the zodiac signs and how they influence our growth, our personalities and our daily lives. In modern times, we as people of science discount the astrological side and focus on the astronomy of the heavens. But they were one study for millennia before the age of science made them separate.

There is historical evidence that astronomy was a recognized science as far back as the Babylonian civilization hundreds of years before Christ. But the study of the stars was not limited to one country. There were similar movements going on in China, India, and Ancient Egypt and all over the Arabian Peninsula. The integration of astronomy and religion is so prevalent that we see it in the Christmas story in which the Magi, Zoroastrian priesthood probably from the equivalent of ancient Syria, followed a star to the Christ child. These astronomers were also astrologers and it was that mixture that lead them to be part of this historic event.

The first book on astronomy was written by Ptolemy during the Greek empire. Since that historic publication, the who’s who list of great astronomers charts a path right through the center of modern science including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Jung, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and more recently even Einstein and Stephen Hawkings would join that noble list. It seemed that from the renaissance on to this day, virtually any man or woman of intellect dabbled in astronomy at least somewhat and it has always been considered a sign of the learned to know about the universe and things astronomical.

Astronomy has had an impact on so many areas of our lives that we really don’t recognize. Many words in our language had their roots in astronomy such as…

* Influenza which comes from the Latin root word for influence. This reflects an early belief that the position of the moon and stars may influence health and cause or cure disease.

* Disaster which comes from the Latin for “bad star”.

* Lunatic which has the root word "Luna" in it which is the Latin word for moon. This highlights the long held belief that is even prevalent today that irrational behavior and even wild and dangerous things happen during a full moon.

Astronomy and its interrelationship with astrology has also influenced culture, education and religion to a very large extent over the centuries. In the English language, the first two days or our week, Sunday and Monday are a reference to astronomy as their literal interpretations would be “The Day of the Sun” and “The Day of the Moon.”

So if you have found astronomy becoming a consuming passion in your thoughts and what fascinates you about the world we live in, you are in great company as this area of study has been a major part of culture and thought virtually since the dawn of civilization. And it will continue to fascinate mankind for as long as those beautiful stars shine over our heads.

The Night Sky

No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to. That is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos well and you took in the night sky. For city dwellers, this is a revelation as profound as if we discovered aliens living among us. Most of us have no idea the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city lights to interfere with the view.

Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars and various sizes and powers of telescopes. But I bet you can remember as a child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of dots of light far to numerous to ever count.

The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that magnificent sky. That word is – “Wow”.

Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity of what is above them and what it represents. The very fact that almost certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids. Children have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on such a grand scope as outer space.

But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky. Some amazing facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they are already having as they gaze eyes skyward. Facts like…

* Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one hundred billion stars just like it or larger. Show them that one hundred billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.

* The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars in them as well. In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small galaxies.

* If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years. But you can’t get there driving the speed limit. You have to drive five trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that fast.

* Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.

These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there are life on other planets. You can challenge the kids to calculate that if every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of them? I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those numbers.

Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions. Don’t be too hasty to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of astronomy that they are experiencing. And if you were there that first moment when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when you was a child. And it might set off a whole new excitement about astronomy in you all over again.

The “WOW” Hobby

Some people sometimes view hobbies as sometimes silly or frivolous pastimes. And it’s true some hobbies are like that. But it is healthy to have a hobby because it diversifies our interests and keeps us active and fun to be with. But many hobbies are for the few that really get into that area of study. Stamp collecting or rock climbing are valid hobbies. But to be sure, these are not hobbies that just anybody will get into.

Astronomy, by contract, that you could say everybody gets into at some point or another. It is safe to say that everybody at some point has looked up at a magnificent night sky and said “WOW.” At that moment, even if was only for that moment, that person became an amateur astronomy hobbyist. They had that “Wow” moment in what can only be described as the “WOW” hobby.

That common experience is what makes astronomy one of the most exciting and popular hobbies of them all. Any hobby has to have a few “wow” moments. Whether it’s hitting that strike in bowling or finding that perfect stamp, there has to be a moment when the bell rings. Well astronomy has many “wow” moments that occur virtually any clear night in the stars. From the coming of an asteroid shower to just figuring out another constellation, there is so much to do and play with in astronomy that you can be a hobbyist your whole life and never get bored.

Besides the excitement of astronomy, another reason it makes a great hobby is that it is easy and cheap to get started. Unlike skiing for example, to just start enjoying astronomy, all you need is the night sky. But there is no end to the levels of complexity and sophistication you can get to as you move along in astronomy as well. So like any good hobby, astronomy is endlessly fascinating and tremendously addictive because there is always more you want to learn and more you can do to make your knowledge and experiences more interesting and fun.

A great side benefit of how many people are into astronomy is that it is a tremendously social hobby as well. This is unusual for a hobby that is associated with a science, that is executed by staring up in the sky by yourself and that is not competitive. But in any town or city, there are at least a few and probably dozens of astronomy clubs and associations that meet regularly to discuss astronomy.

This is the perfect way to introduce a new recruit to the hobby of astronomy. These clubs thrive on sharing their love of astronomy with new members, kids and those just learning how to explore the stars. Most astronomy clubs schedule regular “safaris” to go out away from the lights of the city and get a good night of sky watching done. Going on such an outing with a big group of enthusiasts is the type of experience that will take a passive interest into astronomy and change it into a healthy obsession.

By going out with a group, you can rub elbows with people who know the night sky, can help you learn how to spot the great constellations and how to train your eyes to see the really cool stuff going on over our heads virtually every night. Astronomy is a passion that is shared equally by everyone from children, to college students to serious scholars in the field to even professional astronomers who work at exploring the universe full time. On any given night, you or your child may be sitting next to an award winning professional astronomer who will happily provide a private lesson looking up at the cosmos just for the sheer fun of shared learning.

The great thing is that everything we have talked about here costs virtually nothing. You can get started with your love of astronomy and learn as you go so when you are ready to make some investment in equipment, you have learned from others what is just the right thing for you. Sure, eventually you will want some astronomy magazine subscriptions, a star map or two and binoculars or a telescope. But those things come as your love of the hobby matures. Meanwhile, get out there, meet others who share your excitement about star gazing and get to know a hobby that never stops making you say “WOW”.

The Universe through a Child’s Eyes

There is something about parenthood that gives us a sense of history and a deeply rooted desire to send on into the next generation the great things we have discovered about life. And part of that is the desire to instill in our children the love of science, of learning and particularly the love of nature.

Your fascination with the universe and how to explore it as we so often do in the field of astronomy can be highly academic and dry as maybe it was if you took a course in astronomy. But when you get out there in the field at night, your equipment is just right and the night sky comes alive with activity, there is no other experience like it for majesty and pure excitement. And that is the kind of experience we want our children to come to love as much as we do.

It’s actually not a big jump from play to learning for children when it comes to learning about the natural world, science and astronomy. Exploration is a natural part of being a child and growing up in a fascinating world and universe. So if we can find ways to take that natural desire to explore and instill a life long passion for astronomy, we will have given our children a truly great gift.

So with a few simple family activities, we can instill that love of astronomy in our offspring. Here are some ideas.

* Make star gazing part of family life. You already love to go outdoors as often as possible to enjoy the stars. So don’t let that be your private passion. Get everybody into the act. The kids will love it and look forward to those nights as much as going to the circus.

* Make each new experience in growing into astronomy a fresh threshold. So the first experiences might be what you experienced as a kid, just laying on your back out in the country with the panorama of the stars overhead trying to take it all in. Go ahead and challenge them to count the stars. It’s a fun exercise and one they will save to use as a joke on their kids when they do this same thing in a few decades.

* Take them along the road of learning, introducing binoculars so they can focus on particular areas of the night sky.

* Now they are hooked and want to know about why some of the stars are brighter than others. They have no idea they are going to astronomy school and don’t even know it. You can tell them about the constellations as you point out how to find them by keying off the North Star. By being able to find things in that mass of stars and knowing there is such a vast amount more they can pick out, they are ripe for learning from star maps and about how the galaxies work.

* Think of their excitement as they notice the changes in the night sky. The phases of the moon and the effect of the rotation of the earth on the position of the planets. Help them find their favorite celestial bodies each night. Before long they will learn to chart the movement of the stars just like the early astronomers did.

* Now you will get caught up in the excitement of finding new things to reveal to your excited crew of fledgling astronomers. When you reveal that you are going on a safari to see an eclipse, a meteor shower or the once in a lifetime appearance of a comet, that gift will as big as anything you might spring on them for Christmas.

The wonders of the night sky will captivate your children the way it has you for years. And you will have done them the greatest favor you ever could do by making them lifelong lovers of the universe.

What if They Let YOU Run the Hubble?

It is probably the dream of any amateur astronomer to be able to be the boss of one of the great multi million dollar telescopes even if it was just for one hour or for a few shots. Sure, we can have a lot of fun with our binoculars. And as we improve our personal equipment set, we get better and better at pinpointing what we want to see in the sky.

But there is only so far we can go within the constraints of a family budget in building the perfect telescopic operation. Probably the next level then is to work together with others in your astronomy club. By pooling our resources, we can make more progress both in acquiring much more sophisticated equipment and in synchronizing our telescopic operations.

All of this is good and its fun to tweak it and play with it always finding improvements. But when we are sitting back and dreaming, it’s those big institutional size telescopes that really grab our interest. Maybe you have had a chance to visit one at Kitt Peak, Arizona, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, Palomar Mountain, California or Mt. Locke, Texas to name just a few and as you walked around jaw dropped to your shoes, you thought, maybe if I could just run it for an hour, how awesome would that be?

The good news is that while these huge observatories are not going to let you come in and turn the gears of the mightiest telescopes yourself, many of them will perform specific observations for you and allow you to “see through their eyes” via the internet for that short observation. This is a powerful option for an amateur astronomer and one you want to prepare for carefully. Here is what you do…

1. Begin compiling a list of the great telescopes of the world, their locations and how to contact them. Google will help you with finding lists of these observatories to contact by pointing you to specific directory sites like

2. You can start by submitting your request to a specific observatory. Now here is where you have to do your homework. If you have a specific celestial event you wish to observe, there will be particular telescopes around the globe that will be in the best position to get those shots for you. So study up and find just the right telescope and when the perfect moment for that observation would occur. Get out ahead of this homework as you need to submit your request in plenty of time for it to go through approval and for them to get back to you and to interact with you to nail down what you are going to have them look at.

3. There are two ways you can direct the operators of the telescopes. You can give them specific coordinates to focus on and a specific time frame to perform the observation. The other way is to give them a star, a planet or a particular star system to observe and let them figure out the coordinates. That might be easier because you know what you want to see.

4. Now you sit back and wait for the email that the observation is done. You will not be able to watch them do the observation dynamically. That would be nice but it just isn’t possible yet. These are telescopes, not web cams. But they will post the pictures from your observation on a particular web location and email the results to you for study.

It’s pretty cool, free and customized to what you requested. And you can brag to your friends as you make color copies of your shots that you had Kitt Peak do these up for you personally. And you would not be lying.

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