There have been thousands of science geeks contributing to astronomy over the centuries and millennia. Here are a mere handful that have been selected from some of the most significant figures. Some of these people are real icons of human history, big thinkers. As Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” These are those giants of history, which includes Newton himself of course. He was actually only five foot six, but still.
Claudius Ptolemy c. 90 – 168
Ptolemy was easily the most influential astronomer, geographer, and uber-geek of ancient times. He lived in Alexandria which was a major center of knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean. He promoted the (geocentric) idea that the Earth was the center of the whole Universe and that all things revolved around it. He said the Universe was just a glass ball around the Earth so that the part visible above you appears dome-shaped, like his hat. He had a fancy device made of two rulers for smacking people who disagreed. Ptolemy’s theories prevailed for the next 1400 miserable years. The writings of Ptolemy include names and outlines of 48 constellations that are still in use today. But some people still need to say “abrupt” before pronouncing his name or any word which starts with “pt” like abrupterodactyl for example.
Hypatia 350 – 415
She edited Ptolemy’s stuff and taught astronomy courses at the big famous university of ancient Alexandria in Egypt. It was a kick-ass job in those days. She enjoyed all the prestige and honors that go with being a full professor until some folks came by to tell her the good news about Jesus and his mercy but when she explained that the college had a strict diversity policy, accepting students of all religious persuasions, they killed her with their Christian love. Fortunately as they were burning her on a big pile of books, a couple of nontenured post-docs escaped out the back with some of the undergrads and a handful of star maps. It’s a good thing too because if we didn’t have Ptolemy’s maps we might have to make up our own names for the constellations. Gemini might be the Olsen twins. Virgo might be Madonna. And so on.
Nicolas Copernicus 1473 – 1543
Copernicus wrote a stunning and daring treatment on the solar system that suggested that the Sun was more likely to be in the center than the Earth. It is named “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies” which is also a good name for a fashion model agency. The idea of a heliocentric or sun-centered system is considered so important to history that it is often referred to as the “Copernican Revolution.” Once we accept that the Sun is a star, we immediately are confronted with the possibility that the galaxy is filled with suns and planets. From then on, whenever we look into space, we realize that someone may be looking back. That’s kind of creepy so Copernicus waited to publish his book until he was dead. Even then many worried that the pope would be so pissed that he might mess with Nick in purgatory or something. Apparently Catholics aren’t home free just because they made it to the pearly gates even though they had always drank the juice and eaten the wafers.
Tycho Brahe 1546 – 1601
As the official Royal Astronomer of Denmark (before telescopes), he used a big ass “quadrant” to precisely measure the positions of celestial objects, especially Mars. This data would later prove crucial to Kepler in formulating the laws of planetary motion. He observed a supernova and showed that it could not be within our atmosphere. Likewise he showed that comets must be farther away than the Moon. On cloudy nights he went out and got his royal drunken party on. One night he got into a drunken argument over a stupid math question which led to a drunken knife fight and part of his nose got cut off. He got a gold and silver replacement nose and carried around a box of goo to help keep it stuck on. He died suddenly one night in a drunken stupor and some folks think he choked on a chicken wing but some think his bladder spontaneously exploded. Some think he was poisoned by a guy who wanted to help advance the science of astronomy.
Galileo Galilei 1564 – 1642
Galileo formulated the basic law that all bodies fall at the same rate when dropped off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Notably, he verified his conclusions by carefully designed experiments and measurements with consideration of the facts, which is blasphemous. He constructed a small refractor telescope with which he viewed craters on the Moon, the phases of Venus, and the rings of Saturn. Then he discovered several moons revolving around Jupiter, which is blasphemous. He agreed with Copernicus that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun. For promoting this and other amazing truths he was loved throughout Europe and so was arrested and tried for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s hard to play to the home crowd. When he died his corpse flipped the bird which was then cut off and put on display somewhere in Europe where people will pay to see such things.
Johannes Kepler 1571 – 1630
After much scribbling of notes and doodling of shapes, Kepler “broke the code” of planetary orbits. The big break-through happened after the suspicious death of Tycho Brahe. Kepler was appointed successor as the Royal Astronomer and Imperial Mathematician of Denmark so his official monogram barely fit on a t-shirt. Using Brahe’s meticulous charts on the positions of Mars he was able to deduce that the planets orbit around the Sun in ellipses, not circles as Copernicus had assumed. Kepler articulated three laws of planetary motion. No one believed he had the real answer of the orbits at the time but at least he had a real nose.
Isaac Newton 1642 – 1727
Listing all of Newton’s contributions to science would fill several volumes, depending on how small you can write. For the science of astronomy certain areas of his work stand out. He designed a new type of reflecting telescope which is now called a “reflecting” telescope. Most amateur telescopes in use today are Newtonians but I don’t think his estate gets any royalties. He used a prism to show that white light is actually made of colors. His laws of motion and gravity are the basis for understanding Kepler’s laws of planetary orbits. He basically invented freshman college physics making him the most feared and hated man on all of campus.