Ancient Astronomy

Astronomy is the oldest of the physical sciences. In many early civilizations the regularity of celestial motions was recognized, and attempts were made to keep records and predict future events. The first practical function of astronomy was to provide a basis for the calendar, the units of month and year being determined by astronomical observations. Later, astronomy served in navigation and timekeeping. The Chinese had a working calendar as early as the 13th cent. B.C. About 350 B.C., Shih Shen prepared the earliest known star catalog, containing 800 entries. Ancient Chinese astronomy is best known today for its observations of comets and supernovas. The Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians were also active in astronomy. The earliest astronomers were priests, and no attempt was made to separate astronomy from astrology. In fact, an early motivation for the detailed study of planetary positions was the preparation of horoscopes.

Greek Innovations

The highest development of astronomy in the ancient world came with the Greeks in the period from 600 B.C. to A.D. 400. The methods employed by the Greek astronomers were quite distinct from those of earlier civilizations, such as the Babylonian. The Babylonian approach was numerological and best suited for studying the complex lunar motions that were of overwhelming interest to the Mesopotamian peoples. The Greek approach, on the contrary, was geometric and schematic, best suited for complete cosmological models. Thales, an Ionian philosopher of the 6th cent. B.C., is credited with introducing geometrical ideas into astronomy. Pythagoras, about a hundred years later, imagined the universe as a series of concentric spheres in which each of the seven "wanderers" (the sun, the moon, and the five known planets) were embedded. Euxodus developed the idea of rotating spheres by introducing extra spheres for each of the planets to account for the observed complexities of their motions. This was the beginning of the Greek aim of providing a theory that would account for all observed phenomena. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) summarized much of the Greek work before him and remained an absolute authority until late in the Middle Ages. Although his belief that the earth does not move retarded astronomical progress, he gave the correct explanation of lunar eclipses and a sound argument for the spherical shape of the earth.

The Alexandrian School and the Ptolemaic System

The apex of Greek astronomy was reached in the Hellenistic period by the Alexandrian school. Aristarchus (c.310–c.230 B.C.) determined the sizes and distances of the moon and sun relative to the earth and advocated a heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmology. Although there were errors in his assumptions, his approach was truly scientific; his work was the first serious attempt to make a scale model of the universe. The first accurate measurement of the actual (as opposed to relative) size of the earth was made by Eratosthenes (284–192 B.C.). His method was based on the angular difference in the sun's position at the high noon of the summer solstice in two cities whose distance apart was known.

The greatest astronomer of antiquity was Hipparchus (190–120 B.C.). He developed trigonometry and used it to determine astronomical distances from the observed angular positions of celestial bodies. He recognized that astronomy requires accurate and systematic observations extended over long time periods. He therefore made great use of old observations, comparing them to his own. Many of his observations, particularly of the planets, were intended for future astronomers. He devised a geocentric system of cycles and epicycles (a compounding of circular motions) to account for the movements of the sun and moon.

Ptolemy (A.D. 85–165) applied the scheme of epicycles to the planets as well. The resulting Ptolemaic system was a geometrical representation of the solar system that predicted the motions of the planets with considerable accuracy. Among his other achievements was an accurate measurement of the distance to the moon by a parallax technique. His 13-volume treatise, the Almagest, summarized much of ancient astronomical knowledge and, in many translations, was the definitive authority for the next 14 centuries.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Astronomy: General


Play Hangman

Play Poptropica

Play Same Game

Try Our Math Flashcards