Science Now + Beyond

Astronomy has been a long love of yours, even if you don’t know it

It’s the early 2000’s. You’re in elementary school. Today is StarLab, and you barely contain yourself as your class enters the gymnasium. There, the shiny, silver dome towers almost to the ceiling. The buzzing of fans fills the whole room. On your best behavior, you and your friends rein in the excitement, line up single file and crawl into the dome’s mysterious shadows one by one. It’s pitch black. The teacher hushes everyone to silence and flicks a switch, and suddenly the black abyss above you morphs into the night sky itself. Constellations, planets, Milky Way, all of it. For the next hour or so, your eyes are glued to the heavens.  You may not have known it, but this thrill was your first exposure to astronomy. And you weren’t alone; the mysteries of the great unknown have fascinated mankind since the Stone Age (I’m looking at you, Stonehenge).

Fast forward to May 15, 2021: International Astronomy Day. Astronomy uses physics, math, and chemistry to explain the origins and behaviors of planets, the Sun, the Moon, stars, galaxies, comets, and other celestial beings. This holiday is celebrated twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall (so you can see stars and planets that weren’t visible in spring). This year, Astronomy Day’s fall celebration will be October 9. 

This holiday began with Doug Berger, who served as the president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California in 1973. His astronomy-is-for-everyone approach asked, why do scientists get to have all the fun? 

Because, let’s face it, the sky belongs to everyone. American astronomer Robert Burnham Jr. was also responsible for giving the gift of astronomy to curious kids and scientists alike. In 1966, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was published, allowing people to understand what they saw as they squinted through their telescopes. Soon, telescopes dotted urban areas for the public to use whenever they wanted. 

Studying celestial phenomena can be traced back to the early days of humans. It is said that in 2800 B.C., Stonehenge was built by the Druids to face the rising sun on the summer solstice. In 140 A.D., Roman philosopher Claudius Ptolemy created the Ptolemaic System, the first visual representation of the solar system. Ptolemy was the first to push the idea that we live in a geocentric universe, meaning that the Sun orbits the Earth (which will later be disproved, but not until centuries later). Ptolemy was also an astrologist. Remember StarLab? He was the guy who connected astronomy with the constellation stories you learned under that silver dome. According to Ptolemy, these astrological tales drive the physical effects the heavens (or astronomy) have on life down on Earth. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, astronomy was a central part of the Mayan civilization. Religion ruled their lives, values, and culture. It was believed that the pattern of the stars, the Sun, and the Moon mirrored the actions of the gods. Mayans built observatories and massive pyramids in accordance with solstices and equinoxes. 

Ever hear of Chichén Itzá, the Mayan city ruin? This UNESCO World Heritage site venerates Quetzalcoatl, the serpent god. It hosts millions of tourists each year, who often come in time for the vernal and autumnal equinoxes when the sun illuminates the serpent heads at the base of the pyramid steps. 

[Image description: The ruin of Chichén Itzá towering against the sky.] Via Unsplash
[Image description: The ruin of Chichén Itzá towering against the sky.] Via Unsplash
If this wasn’t impressive enough, note that these sophisticated structures were built after recording shadows, charting stars, and using horizons to study sun motions…all of this before modern technology (the telescope wouldn’t be invented until 1608, and the Mayans were around from 1800 B.C. to 900 A.D.). And it doesn’t end there. The Mayans followed a 365-day calendar, which was unbelievably accurate to the 24-hour day, considering that it was accomplished with the naked eye.  

Later, the 16th and 17th centuries pulled the curtain on astronomy as we know it today. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were their early founders, but Galileo holds the title of the “father of astronomy.”

Nicolaus Copernicus introduced heliocentricism, meaning that planets revolve around the Sun, the center of th4e universe. After Copernicus died in 1543, Johannes Kepler’s three laws built off his findings. One: planets not only circle the Sun, but they also orbit it as well. Two: planets do not circle the Sun at the same rate as their orbits. Three: the lengths of the orbit of two planets relate to how far they are from the sun. 

While Kepler tailored his second law in 1609, Galileo Galilei was about to revolutionize astronomy forever. The first to study astronomy with a telescope, Galileo proved Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe. By studying the phases of Venus, Galileo confirmed that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. In addition to originating the idea that billions of individual stars illuminate the Milky Way, Galileo discovered the four moons of Jupiter, the sunspots on the Sun, and the Moon’s rough, Earth-like surface. 

Does this sound familiar? That’s because this is modern astronomy. 

Like many who shake the status quo, Galileo was condemned for his findings. Because of his fervor behind the heliocentric theory, the Catholic Church branded him a heretic, put him on trial, and forced him to denounce his discoveries on the threat of death. He did, of course, but legend has it that the moment he was freed, he muttered, “And yet it moves” (as any sane astronomer would say). 

[Image description: The trial of Galileo Galilei.] Via
[Image description: The trial of Galileo Galilei.] Via
Today, students, scientists, and stargazers at large owe much to the pioneers of astronomy–because there’s a lot of them. The world’s relationship with this natural science is an intimate one. Every night, we are cloaked with the same celestial beings studied, analyzed, and venerated by Ptolemy, Mayans, pagans, and Galileo himself. Astronomy’s history is a unique one, shaping civilizations from the ancient world to the modern era.

International Astronomy Day’s very existence symbolizes the legacy of this history. So the next time you gaze at the night sky, remember that before your eyes glow a rich, endless history as much as a science. 

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By Laurie Melchionne

Laurie Melchionne is the editor in chief at The Argo, Stockton University's independent student newspaper. Laurie majors in Literature with a double minor in Journalism and Digital Literacy/Multimedia Design. With a concentration in creative writing, Laurie loves all things editorial and communications, and believes in people sharing their voices through the written word.