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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ANAXAGORAS (c.500 – c.428 BC)

‘The notion of the indivisible particle’

Anaxagoras came from Ionia but settled in Athens, where he remained for thirty years and taught both Pericles and Euripides. Charged with impiety because of his theory that the Sun is a red-hot stone (such an explanation, denying the role of Helios the sun-god, was enough to warrant prosecution) he fled Athens before the trial and settled in Asia Minor.
What we know about Anaxagoras is based on references to him by later writers.

In the cosmology of Anaxagoras, the Universe began as a homogenous sea of identical basic particles. Nous gave this sea a stir, in the knowledge that in time the particles would so combine to arrange themselves such that everything would be as it is today.

Picture of a document showing a seal with a likeness of Anaxagoras ©

Nous was a vital principle akin to the life force of vitalism – the nearest English words being ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’.
The range of the word ‘Nous’ is vastly greater, however, as it refers to the combination of insight and intuition which permits the apprehension of the fundamental principles of the cosmos – the concept is closer to the oriental idea of ‘seeing’ than the occidental notion of intelligence founded upon EUCLIDEAN LOGIC.

At the same time, Nous could be the creative, motive intelligence behind the cosmos, almost indistinguishable from the Christian concept of the will of God.

Bust said to be of ANAXAGORAS ©


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1932 Manchester, England

‘Discovery of neutrons – elementary particles devoid of any electric charge’

In contrast with the Helium nuclei (alpha rays) which are charged, and therefore repelled by the electrical forces present in the nuclei of heavy atoms, the neutron is capable of penetrating and splitting the nuclei of even the heaviest elements, creating the possibility of the fission of 235uranium

Assistant to ERNEST RUTHERFORD, Chadwick’s earlier work involved the showering of elements with alpha particles. The picture that gradually emerged was one of a nucleus that contained a very heavy particle with a positive electric charge. This particle was christened the proton, the hydrogen building block envisaged by WILLIAM PROUT.
A spin-off of this was the deduction that the nucleus of the hydrogen atom, the positively charged proton with an atomic weight of one, was present in larger quantities in the nucleus of every other atom.

Rutherford and Geiger had shown that a helium atom and an alpha particle were the same thing, apart from the positive electric charge carried by the alpha particle.

A helium atom seemed to consist of a nucleus of a pair of protons circled by two electrons. However, a helium nucleus seemed to weigh as much as four protons. The mass of the known components of an atom did not add-up. Protons seemed to account for around half of the weight and were matched in number by an equal amount of negatively charged electrons to counter their positive charge. But the weight of an electron was one-thousandth that of a proton, so approximately half of the atomic weight of the element was unaccounted for.
Chadwick solved the conundrum in 1932 when he re-interpreted the results of an experiment carried out by IRENE and FREDERIC JULIOT-CURIE (Irene was the daughter of PIERRE and MARIE CURIE).
The couple had found in 1932 that when beryllium was showered with alpha particles, the resultant radiation could force protons out of substances containing hydrogen. Chadwick suggested that neutrally charged sub-atomic units, which he named neutrons, with the same weight as protons, could force this reaction and therefore were what made up the radiation that the Curies called gamma rays. Rutherford had hinted at the existence of such a particle in 1920.

The explanation was widely accepted and the riddle of `atomic weight’ had been solved: a similar number of neutrons to protons in the nucleus of an element would make up the remaining fifty per cent of the previously ‘missing’ mass.

photo portrait of FREDERICK SODDY ©


The discovery of the neutron made sense of the observation that many elements come in a variety of forms, each with differing radioactive properties such as decay rate. Each form consisted of atoms with a different mass. Frederick Soddy christened these variants ‘isotopes’ in 1911. The idea that each element might be a mixture of atoms of different atomic weights explained why the atomic weights of a handful of elements were not simple multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen, the most notorious example being chlorine whose atomic weight was 35.5 times that of hydrogen. Most of the variant forms of each element turned out to be radioactively unstable. An element such as chlorine, with more than one stable isotope, is rare.

The various isotopes of an element were merely atoms with the same number of protons in their nucleus but with a different number of neutrons.

artistic representation of atomic disintegration

Thus every atom was composed of electrons, protons and neutrons. The protons and neutrons clung together in a central clump – the atomic nucleus – while the electrons circled in a distant haze. The neutrons were responsible for increasing the weight of the elements without adding any electrical charge. Two protons and two neutrons made a helium nucleus; eight protons and eight neutrons an oxygen nucleus; 26 protons and 30 neutrons an iron nucleus; 79 protons and 118 neutrons a gold; and 92 protons and 146 neutrons a nucleus of uranium. When a radioactive nucleus expelled an alpha particle, it lost two neutrons and two protons and consequently became a nucleus of an element two places lower in the periodic table. When a radioactive nucleus emitted a beta particle, however, a neutron changed into a proton, transforming the nucleus into that of an element one place higher in the periodic table.

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ROBERT GODDARD (1882-1945)

1915 – USA

‘Demonstrates that rocket engines can produce thrust in a vacuum’

Photograph of DR ROBERT H GODDARD ©


‘Robert Goddard stands as the epitome of the early American desire to conquer space’

It was generally believed that it would be impossible for a rocket to move outside of the earth’s atmosphere, as there was nothing for it to push against in order to gain propulsion. Goddard had already gone a long way to revoking this assumption by 1907 in completing calculations to show that a rocket could thrust in a vacuum, and had backed up this concept with physical experiment in 1915.

His booklet “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” described the multi-stage principle and presented advanced ideas on how to improve the performance of solid-fuel rockets.

‘I have read very attentively your remarkable book A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes edited in 1919 and I have found in it quite all the ideas which the German Professor H.Oberth published in 1924′ (in a letter from Soviet engineer & author Nikolai Alexsevitch Rynin)

In 1926 he launched the world’s first liquid fuelled rocket using gasoline and liquid oxygen. Over the next decade, Goddard filed patents for guidance, control and fuel pump mechanisms.

In spite of his success (by 1935 he had launched a rocket at Roswell, New Mexico which traveled faster than the speed of sound and another which achieved an altitude of 1.7 miles, then a record) the US Government largely ignored his efforts until the space race gathered momentum in the 1940s and 1950s. The government was eventually forced to pay one million dollars to Goddard’s widow for patent infringement in acknowledgement of the use they had made of his designs as a basis from which to begin development.

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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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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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