Historical Approaches to Studying the Galaxy & Solar System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Humans seem to have always been fascinated by the stars, but how did they understand the cosmos? In this lesson, we'll explore several approaches to astronomy across history, and see how they changed with time.

Studying the Cosmos

From what we can tell, humans seem to have been fascinated by the stars for as long as we've been…human. What's out there, and where do we fit in it? These questions have echoed across history, from one civilization to the next.

However, different people across time have found different ways to answer these questions. People across the world looked up at the same moon, the same stars, and the same planets, but they developed unique approaches to studying them.

Observation

Let's start with the world's oldest method of scientific research: observation. The ancients watched the stars and moon and the planets, and they found ways to record their observations.

Some of the oldest architectural marvels in the world were most likely observatories, used to track the movement of various celestial bodies (the Moon, the Sun, and Venus were the big ones). From Stonehenge in Britain to the rock carvings of North America to the temples of Chinese, Maya, and Incan societies, people found ways to record and predict astrological events.

Many believe Stonehenge was an ancient observatory, used to map the movement of specific celestial bodies
stonehenge

This fascination was carried into every form of recording humans developed, so when writing was invented, the stars were recorded there as well. The Babylonians recorded the movement of the stars, the Egyptians grouped them into constellations, and the Maya charted them into cosmological calendars.

From these eras of observation, many societies developed their first theories about their relationship with the stars. The Sun and Moon rose and set each day, leading most people to assume that they traveled around the Earth. The geocentric model of the universe, in which the Earth is at the exact center, may be the oldest framework for understanding the cosmos.

Math and Logic

By the time that the ancient Greeks established their civilization, observation was a tried and true method of studying the cosmos. However, the Greeks started taking this even further.

Their methods began with an obsession with logic. The philosopher Aristotle believed that all things could be deduced through rational thinking. To prove his point, he logically deduced that the Earth was a sphere, based on the movements of the Sun and Moon.

The Greek obsession with logic led them to find new ways to prove that their theories were correct. The idea was that formulas, equations that were true no matter what, could eliminate human error and explain reality.

Equipped with mathematical formulas, Eratosthenes estimated the size of the Earth in the 3rd century, Heraclides declared that all planets in the solar system follow circular orbits, and Hipparchus realized that the earth spun on an axis.

However, not everyone agreed on the results of their research. The big debate became this: what's at the center of the solar system? The geocentric model was still in vogue, used by brilliant minds like Ptolemy through the 2nd century CE.

It was challenged, however, by people like Aristarchus, who back in the 3rd century BCE developed the heliocentric model, which placed the sun at the center of the solar system. As the debate raged on, the Greeks continued relying on their observations, logic, and equations to find the answer.

A geocentric model of the Universe, based on the theories of Ptolemy
geocentric map

Technology

After the Greeks came the Romans, and after the Romans came a withdrawal from the ideas of science. However, by the 15th century CE the mathematical approaches to studying the universe again began to appear, setting the tone for the modern world.

In the 16th century, Polish astronomer Copernicus reinvigorated the debate over the solar system, using the latest mathematical and scientific ideas to argue for the heliocentric model.

While the Greeks relied on logic, however, the people of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were even more obsessed with removing human error from their calculations. So, they invented machines that could replicate their experiments without prejudice or bias.

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