"School of Athens" Fresco in Apostol...

School of Athens” Fresco in Apostolic Palace, Rome, Vatican City, by Raphael 1509 – 1510 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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    HIPPARCHUS (c.190 – c.125 BC)

    134 BCE – Nicea, Turkey

    ‘Observation of a new star in the constellation Scorpio’

    The ‘Precession of the Equinoxes’

    By the time Hipparchus was born, astronomy was already an ancient art.

    Hipparchus plotted a catalogue of the stars – despite warnings that he was thus guilty of impiety. Comparing his observations with earlier recordings from Babylonia he noted that the celestial pole changed over time.
    He speculated that the stars are not fixed as had previously been thought and recorded the positions of 850 stars.

    Hipparchus‘ astronomical calculations enabled him to plot the ecliptic, which is the path of the Sun through the sky. The ecliptic is at an angle to the Earth‘s equator, and crosses it at two points, the equinoxes (the astronomical event when the Sun is at zenith over the equator, marking the two occasions during the year when both hemispheres are at right angles to the Sun and day and night are of equal length).

    The extreme positions of summer and winter mark the times in the Earth’s orbit where one of the hemispheres is directed towards or away from the Sun.


    The Sun is furthest away at the solstices.

    From his observations, he was able to make calculations on the length of the year.
    There are several ways of measuring a year astronomically and Hipparchus measured the ‘tropical year’, the time between equinoxes.

    Hipparchus puzzled that even though the Sun apparently traveled a circular path, the seasons – the time between the solstices and equinoxes – were not of equal length. Intrigued, he worked out a method of calculating the Sun’s path that would show its exact location on any date.

    To facilitate his celestial observations he developed an early version of trigonometry.
    With no notion of sine, he developed a table of chords which calculated the relationship between the length of a line joining two points on a circle and the corresponding angle at the centre.

    By comparing his observations with those noted by Timocharis of Alexandria a century and a half previously, Hipparchus noted that the points at which the equinox occurred seemed to move slowly but consistently from east to west against the backdrop of fixed stars.

    We now know that this phenomenon is not caused by a shift in the stars.
    Because of gravitational effects, over time the axis through the geographic North and South poles of the Earth points towards different parts of space and of the night sky.
    The Earth’s rotation experiences movement caused by a slow change in the direction of the planet’s tilt; the axis of the Earth ‘wobbles’, or traces out a cone, changing the Earth’s orientation as it orbits the Sun.
    The shift in the orbital position of the equinoxes relative to the Sun and the change in the seasons is now known as ‘the precession of the equinoxes’, but Hipparchus was basically right.

    Hipparchus‘ only large error was to assume, like all those of his time except ARISTARCHUS that the Earth is stationary and that the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolve around it. The fact that the stars are fixed and the Earth is moving makes such a tiny difference to the way the Sun, moon and stars appear to move that Hipparchus was still able to make highly accurate calculations.

    These explanations may show how many people become confused by claims that the Earth remains stationary as was believed by the ancients – from our point-of-view on Earth that IS how things could appear.
    a) demonstration of precession.

    b) demonstration of the equinoxes, but not of the precession, which takes place slowly over a cycle of 26,000 years.


    Because the Babylonians kept records dating back millennia, the Greeks were able to formulate their ideas of the truth.

    Hipparchus gave a value for the annual precession of around 46 seconds of arc (compared to a modern figure of 50.26 seconds). He concluded that the whole star pattern was moving slowly eastwards and that it would revolve once every 26,000 years.

    Hipparchus also made observations and calculations to determine the orbit of the moon, the dates of eclipses and devised the scale of magnitude or brightness that, considerably amended, is still in use.

    PTOLEMY cited Hipparchus as his most important predecessor.

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    HEINRICH OLBERS (1758-1840)

    1823 – Germany

    ‘Why is the sky dark at night?’

    This question puzzled astronomers for centuries and no, the answer is not because the sun is on the other side of the planet.

    Olbers pointed out that if there were an infinite number of stars evenly distributed in space, the night sky should be uniformly bright. He believed that the darkness of the night sky was due to the adsorption of light by interstellar space.

    This is wrong. Olbers’ question remained a paradox until 1929 when it was discovered that the galaxies are moving away from us and the universe is expanding. The distant galaxies are moving away so fast that the intensity of light we receive from them is diminished. In addition, this light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. These two effects significantly reduce the light we receive from distant galaxies, leaving only the nearby stars, which we see as points of light in a darkened sky.

    diagram explaining reduced light intensity as the observer travels further from the source

    What is light intensity?

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    EDWIN HUBBLE (1889-1953)

    1929 – USA

    ‘Galaxies are moving away from each other and us at an ever-increasing rate. The more distant the galaxy, the faster it is moving away’

    Photo portrait of EDWIN HUBBLE with pipe ©


    This means that the universe is expanding like a balloon. The principle of an expanding cosmos is at the heart of astronomical theory.

    Before 1930, astronomers believed that the Milky Way was the only galaxy in the universe. The discovery of Cepheid variables, which brightened and dimmed in a regular rhythm gave a clue as to the true size of the universe.

    In 1923, Hubble spotted a Cepheid variable in the Andromeda Nebula, previously supposed to be clouds of gas. This led to the conclusion that Andromeda was nearly a million light years away, far beyond the limits of the Milky Way and clearly a galaxy in its own right. Hubble went on to discover Cepheids in other nebula and proved that galaxies existed beyond our own.
    He began to develop a classification system, sorting galaxies by size, content, distance, shape and brightness. He divided galaxies into elliptical, spiral, barred spiral and irregular. These are subdivided into categories, a, b and c according to the size of the central mass of stars within the galaxy and the tightness of any spiraling arms.

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    The Earth’s atmosphere alters light rays from outer space; the Hubble Space Telescope, being above the atmosphere, receives images with far greater clarity and detail than any Earth-based optical instrument and its camera can achieve a resolution ten times greater than the largest Earth based telescope.
    Construction began on the HST in 1977 and it was launched by the space shuttle Discovery on 25 April 1990. The instruments can detect not only visible light but also infra-red and ultra-violet.

    Hubble noticed that the galaxies appeared to be moving away from the region of space in which the Earth is located. It appeared that the further away a galaxy was, the faster it was receding. The conclusion was that the universe, which had previously been considered static is in fact expanding.

    In 1915, EINSTEIN’s theory of relativity had suggested that owing to the effects of gravity, the universe was either expanding or contracting. Einstein knew little about astronomy and had introduced an anti-gravity force into his equations, the cosmological constant. Hubble’s discoveries proved Einstein had been right after all and Einstein later described the introduction of the gravitational constant as ‘the biggest blunder of my life’.

    Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding led to the development of the ‘big-bang’ model of the universe.

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    JOSEF VON FRAUNHOFER (1787-1826)

    1823 – Germany

    ‘The spectroscope’

    A significant improvement on the apparatus used by Newton. Sunlight, instead of passing through a pinhole before striking a prism, is passed through a long thin slit in a metal plate. This creates a long ribbon-like spectrum, which may be scanned from end to end with a microscope.

    image of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum showing a series of dark fraunhofer lines

    Cutting across the ribbon of rainbow colours are thin black lines. The lines are present even when a diffraction grating is used instead of a prism, proving that the lines are not produced by the material of a prism, but are inherent in sunlight.

    An equivalent way of describing colours is as light waves of different sizes.
    The wavelength of light is fantastically small, on average about a thousandth of a millimeter, with the wavelength of red light being about twice as long as that of blue light.

    Fraunhofer’s black lines correspond to missing wavelengths of light.

    By 1823 Fraunhofer had measured the positions of 574 spectral lines, labeling the most prominent ones with the letters of the alphabet. The lines labeled with the letters ‘H’ and ‘K’ correspond to light at a wavelength of 0.3968 thousandths of a millimeter and 0.3933 thousandths of a millimeter, respectively. The lines are present in the spectrum of light from stars, usually in different combinations.

    Fraunhofer died early at the age of 39 and it was left to the German GUSTAV KIRCHHOFF to make the breakthrough that explained their significance.

    Astronomers today know the wavelengths of more than 25,000 ‘Fraunhofer lines’.

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    ROBERT BUNSEN (1811- 99) GUSTAV KIRCHHOFF (1824- 87)

    1860 – Germany

    ‘Each chemical element, when heated to incandescence, produces its own characteristic lines in the spectrum of light’

    For example, sodium produces two bright yellow lines.
    Bunsen developed the Bunsen burner in 1855.
    In the flame test the Bunsen burner’s non-luminous flame does not interfere with the coloured flame given off by the sample.

    Kirchhoff was a professor of physics at Heidelberg. Bunsen and Kirchhoff together developed the first spectroscope, a device used to produce and observe a spectrum. They used their spectroscope to discover two new elements, caesium (1860) and rubidium (1861).

    In 1860 Kirchhoff made the discovery that when heated to incandescence, each element produces its own characteristic lines in the spectrum.

    This means that each element emits light of a certain wavelength – sodium’s spectrum has two yellow lines (wavelengths about 588 and 589 nanometres). The Sun’s spectrum contains a number of dark lines, some of which correspond to these wavelengths.

    The Swedish scientist ANDERS ANGSTROM had, four years earlier, found that a gas always absorbs light at the same wavelength that it emits light. If the gas is hotter than the light source, then more light is emitted by the gas than absorbed, creating a bright line in the spectrum of the light source. If the gas is cooler than the light source the opposite happens; more light is absorbed by the gas than is emitted, creating a dark line.
    The dark solar D lines told Kirchhoff that sodium is present in the relatively cool outer atmosphere of the Sun. This could be tested in the laboratory by burning a piece of chalk in a hot oxygen-hydrogen torch. The intensely bright limelight that is produced may be passed through a cooler sodium flame and the light emerging examined through a spectroscope. Crossing the spectrum of the artificial light occur black lines at the same wavelength that a sodium flame emits light. This solved the mystery of the FRAUNHOFER LINES.

    Scientists now had a means to determine the presence of elements in stars. By comparing the dark lines in the spectra of light from the stars with the bright lines produced by substances in the laboratory, Kirchhoff had been able to identify the elements that made up a celestial body millions of miles away in space.


    In England the astronomer William Huggins recorded the spectra of hundreds of stars and showed the unmistakable fingerprints of familiar elements that are found on the Earth’s surface. The stars are made of exactly the same kind of atoms as the Earth.

    In 1868 Norman Lockyer described a spectral line in the yellow region very close to the wavelength of the two ‘D’ spectral lines of sodium. After repeated attempts to discover a substance that produced the same line on Earth, it appeared that the line did not correspond to any hitherto known element. Lockyer gave the element the name ‘helium’, the gas later to be found associated with radioactive decay in ores containing uranium.

    Helium had not previously been found on Earth because it is both inert and lighter than air, ironic because after hydrogen, helium is the second most common element in the universe.

    In 1904 RUTHERFORD would declare that the presence of helium in the Sun was evidence that sunlight was a product of radioactive processes. The absence of any FRAUNHOFER lines in sunlight that corresponded to radium dealt a blow to this hypothesis. Was there another way of releasing atomic energy than radioactivity?


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