Background information 9



General Introduction Heritage Historically Significant Individuals / Developments

6th C BC
Greeks realise the earth is a sphere. Made first accurate measurements of earth's circumference and moon's size and distance from earth.
6th C BC
Thales: the earth rests on water.
6th C BC
Anaximander: the earth doesn't rest on anything.
540-480 BC
Heraclitus: universe behaves in a periodic fashion. The sun is a foot wide and is new every day.
500-428 BC
Anaxagoras: the mind controls the universe, comets are formed by planets colliding, eclipses are explained by shadows, and the earth is flat and solid, supported in the air.
450 BC
From this time onwards, the Greeks began writing astronomical and meteorological diaries called parapegmata.
320-250 BC
Aristarchus: was the first astronomer to suggest that the earth revolves on its axis and travels around the sun (heliocentric model). However, despite Aristarchus' work, the general belief was in a geocentric model - as made famous by Greek astronomer Ptolemy (c. AD 90-168)
c.276-195 BC
Fratosthene: calculated that the earth was 38,600km in circumference - real figure is 40,074km! Not bad!
146-127 BC
Hipparchus: tracked the sun's path in the sky, and calculated the solar year within 7 mins. His catalogue of 850 stars completed in 129 BC, was still in use 1,800 years later.
c.100-178 AD
Ptolemy: v.famous - published the first systematic account of astronomy. His key work, Almagest which puts the earth at the centre of the universe.

Practicalities of Observation:

All ancient astronomy relies on naked-eye observations. What could an ancient see with the naked eye?

  1. sun, moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn
  2. 1000s of stars - of which only about 1000 were identifiable in groups - namely the 48 ancient constellations which were formalised by Ptolemy (c.AD100 - 178)
  3. Occasional phenomena - e.g. eclipses, comets and shooting stars.

All ancients (the Greeks included) had a geocentric view of the universe i.e., the assumption that the earth was at the centre of the universe with planets orbiting it.

However, after close observation over a period of years, the Greeks (and others - the Babylonians...?) could deduce that:

  1. Stars share a uniform wheeling movement from east to west - on curved orbits.
  2. Some stars have large orbits & are visible throughout the night - whilst others have small orbits, visible only for a short time. Some stars are constantly visible.
  3. Different starts are prominent during different seasons.
Summary of the Greeks' relation to the stars:
  1. The stars were deemed to have celestial significance - the Greeks adopted the Babylonian tradition of naming their planets and stars after gods with 'similar' characteristics.
  2. The science of astronomy grew out of a belief in astrology - the power of the planets and stars to affect life on earth. Each planet was believed to have the personality and power of one of the gods. e.g. Mars = god of war - associated with war, plague, famine and violent death.
  3. The term astrology comes from the Greek words, astron meaning 'star,' and logos meaning 'the science.' The signs of the zodiac were developed by the Babylonians. The Greeks adopted and adapted the zodiac signs.
  4. The stars were used as gigantic clocks to measure the changes in the seasons.