The Evolution of Cosmology and Astronomy

As best as we can determine some, if not all, of primitive mankind believed that the skies above were inhabited by "gods.” To some the Sun and moon were gods. To others the stars in the skies at night were either gods of fabled figures from mythology. The constellation Orion (see picture below) was a grouping of stars that appeared to look to the ancients like a great hunter with a sword on his belt and a pack of dogs chasing down prey in the night skies... (Have you ever looked up at the clouds in the sky only to see or imagine you see shapes? It's the same concept!)

The night skies are a regular, predictable event. Starting in late fall up North, Orion starts to appear in the skies, each and every years. This, we know today, is because the motion of stars in the sky is very slight and takes centuries to make any significant changes.

Many of you are aware of what is called the “North Star” – which is a somewhat dim star that sits almost directly over the North polar region of the Earth, giving the illusion it never moves. It actually spins in a very small, very slight circle that at arms length is smaller in diameter than a fingernail.

We now know with great certainty that all things move in various directions in the universe and, thus, the night skies. But these objects are so far away and move so slowly that it takes thousands of years for noticeable changes.


Early man noticed a few objects that changed readily and one group of these were little star like objects that didn’t reappear each year as did Orion the Hunter or Aries the Ram. Because these bright, star-like objects changed position from night to night they called them “wanders” which in the Greek language translates into the word planets.

That name stuck throughout time and later observers of the skies gave these planets names of Gods or other fabled figures. The shimmering blue white planet was named Venus, because it shown in the skies at night or morning like a beautiful, fiery jewel. The bright red planet was named Mars after the God of war, as blood red is associated with battle. The bright white planet boldly seen at night was called Jupiter. The dimmer, yellowed planet in the sky was named Saturn.


A mystical pseudo-science called Astrology (see our column in Lifestyles) was the original form of the modern science of Astronomy. Astrologers assigned meanings to celestial events, such as when Venus and Jupiter are next to each other in the sky or travelling through a constellation.

Constellations, as mentioned above with Orion, are groupings of stars that seemed to make a patter or shape to the ancients. To this day many people look up at the day skies on a cloudy day and see shapes in cloud patterns. Well, ancient man did this with star patterns.

The planets travel a belt of 12 constellations from Aries (the ram) into Taurus (the bull), into Gemini (the twins), into Cancer (the crab), into Leo (the lion) into Virgo (the virgin) into Libra (which represents weight scales of balance), into Scorpio (the scorpion), into Sagittarius (the archer), into Capricorn (the goat), Aquarius (the water bear) and finally Pisces (two fish that are swimming in opposite directions). The astrologers called this belt the Zodiac and they gave attributes to each of these constellations or “signs” of the Zodiac. As the planets move through these the Astrologers believed that events were foretold.

Astrologers drew detailed maps of the night skies, created tables and almanacs giving times and dates for all objects in the sky, sometimes years in advance.

Persia, Arabia, Greece and Rome all had strong Astrology systems and professionals. It is strongly believed that the fabled “three wise men” spoken about in the Bible were Astrologers.

Ptolemic and Copernican Systems

One of the major beliefs back then was that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all the stars, along with the Sun, moon and planets, circled around the Earth, which is a concept put forth by both Aristotle and Ptolemy way back many centuries ago. Around that same time another concept in which the Sun was the center was postulated by Aristarchus of Samos, but this was not widely accepted until after Galileo's work and telescopes were put into wide use, much later in the 1600s.

Just before Galileo a mathematician and scientist named Nicholas Copernicus, who lived around the year 1500, took the view of Aristarchus and mathematically proved that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the Universe, however the prevailing Church doctrines of that time made this notion heresy, as the Church believed Earth was the center of all things.

Galileo and Newton

Galileo Galilei, was an Italian mathematician, professor, scientist and inventor who lived around the year 1600.

Galileo is (along with, much later in time, Isaac Newton) is one of the founders of modern physics. He changed the rules and laws of this field when he disproved the concept that objects of different weights fall at different speeds. By rolling and dropping objects (the infamous story of him doing this off the Leaning Tower in Italy) he was able to show and prove that all objects fall at the same rate, which Newton later attributed to Gravity. Galileo published his findings “On Motion” and this disputed age old beliefs that date back to ancient Greece.

He patented the first pump used to raise water with only a single horse (making it a one horse power pump) and then improved on the telescope.

The telescope was already in use, especially on sailing ships, but they had only 3 magnification powers. Galileo improved this to 20 magnification powers and was able to observe craters on the moon, see the four larger moons of the distant planet Jupiter, the phases of Venus, spots on the sun (which lead to blindness as he didn’t know about protecting his eyes from the harsh rays of the sun) and “ears” of Saturn (which later astronomers would see more clearly through better telescopes and define them not as ears, but as rings -- see picture below).

His observations of the moon and Venus lead him to properly conclude that the Earth was not the center of the universe. By noticing “phases” of these two objects he postulated that the planets were in orbits around the Sun, with Venus being closer to the Sun than the Earth, while Mars, Jupiter and Saturn never showed phases so they must be further out than the Earth was from the Sun. This proved the theory of the universe as postulated by Copernicus, which put Galileo into bad favor with the Church.

Originally the Church allowed him to publish his findings, but he was later called to task, found guilty of heresy and put under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The publications of Galileo’s findings reached many learned people around the world and soon everyone was building telescopes and watching the night skies with new interest and a new point of view on the universe around us.

Sir Isaac Newton, who would define the laws of motion and gravity that still hold right up to today in the realm of our Earth bound and locally traveled space flight trips (Einstein’s theories made later in the 20th century show that Newton’s physics don’t behave quite the same at very great speeds, such as those approaching light, but elsewhere they work out just fine) invented the first reflecting telescope. Made by passing a big piece of glass over another big piece of round, flat glass using abrasives to wear away a small curve. You then silver this surface and put a lens at the top of a long tube and you have a reflecting telescope (Galileo used two lenses to make a refractor telescope -- see our piece on Telescopes in the Technology department).

Astronomers with these new and better telescopes began seeing all sorts of new things in the sky that were never know before. A hazy spot in the sword area of Orion (now called the “Great Nebula” -- see photo below) and a misty smoke ring shaped area in the constellation Lyra (known as the “ring nebula”). Huygens saw the "ears" of Saturn were really rings and he noted it had a prominent moon that became known as Titan (NASA, ESA and Italy recently landed a probe on Titan and Alan Nourse wrote a childrens science fiction novel about a mining colony on Titan.) Herschell discovered the next and dimmer planet Uranus.

Note the picture at the start of this article on the constellation Orion, see that red star in the sword? This is a close-up of that region.

In the 1900s very fine and powerful telescopes were created, along with radio telescopes that can see the electronic impulse waves from many objects in the sky day or night.

We eventually determined that some stars move away from us and some stars move towards us. We make this determination by noticing the shift of red or blue light as measured with a spectroscope – a rainbow generator.

Isaac Newton was the first person to postulate that white light from the Sun is made up of a variety of colors from deep purple to bright red. It was eventually discovered that if an object (such as a star) is in motion these color compress and expand based on what direction the object is moving. By observing these “spectral” shifts modern astronomers can plot the direction of travel of the various stars and galaxies in the known universe (which match observable records, so we know these are reliable readings).

The old school of Astrology has become an “occult art” often snubbed by professional Astronomers.

Astronomy and Cosmology Today

The new breed of “cosmologists” are scientists who encompass both physics and astronomy to explain the nature of things in the universe, which includes to a degree Albert Einstein (who dealt with time, space, gravity, measurements of things relative to time and space) and Stephen W. Hawking (who has another view of time).

The new breed of astronomers are now looking for planets circling other stars, new deep space objects and the edges of the known universe. They are attempting to prove and define "light" and "very dark" regions of space. The so-called "black holes" and "worm holes." Not all of these things are accepted as reality, but the Cosmologists are trying to figure it all out.

In their quest to explain and define the universe various theories have been put forth, of which the most widely accepted theory actually meets with the religious view on creation. In the begining there was nothing but black and then there was light and all the stars and planets were formed!

Einstein wasn't a believer in the "random" theories put forth by another group of Cosmologists who are sometimes known as the "Quantum" theorists, who believe that everything occurs as a result of random chance. Einstein once responded that "God doesn't play craps!" Einstein believed that there was a grand design to things and everything behaved in an orderly manner with purpose and intent. His job was to explain the behaviour of what he could see in the universe around him so that we could understand the nature of things and how they interacted.

If it sounds as ficitional as Astrology, maybe it is, then again, maybe it isn't! The science of Cosmology and Astronomy attempt the define and explain the universe that surrounds us and we cannot excape the reality that Eistein's views and theories eventually made the Atomic Bomb a reality. Who knows what other views and theories may yeld in the future. The destruction of mankind or our expansion deep into the universe...

Only time will tell, but had we stood still long ago we'd still believe the Earth was flat, we couldn't travel faster than 60 miles per hour, fly in airplanes, watch TV or read under an electric light, and we'd still think we were the center of all things. We know we are merely part of a whole and the universe doesn't revolve around our world.

Our Outer Space Special Continues With The Following From 2005...

Space Special | Rocketing Into Space | India In Space | Europeans In Space
Women Among The Stars | Cosmology and Astronomy | Reaching For The Stars
Antigravity (Fiction) | Not To Go Into Space (Opinion) | Telescopes
Night Skies January-February 2005 | Space in Film, TV, VHS and DVD
Astrology January-February | Cartoons Part 5 (Marvin The Martian) | Books (Space in Print) | Music (Space in Melody)


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