Since the beginning of humanity, the stars have fascinated us as a point of meditation. Friedrich Nietzsche would say that this is what separates us from our animal past: the abstract conception of greatness; our human condition is weighed down by this awareness. We are oppressed by our own capacity! At the heart of it all, unwrapping it all, is space — the beginning of philosophical speculation.
More and more today, it continues to be central to our conception of life, the universe, and everything. Singers serenade the vast emptiness, muses bathe in reflected stars, but who are the astronomers that have changed the way we think about these celestial wonders, and in so doing changed the way we think about life? Here are the top ten:
10 Edwin Hubble (1889 – 1953)
Oh! You’ve heard of this one, have you? At least you’re familiar with the Hubble space telescope. This is the only functioning telescope in outer space and has proven to be invaluable to astrophysics and astronomy at large. Although this was only named after Edwin Hubble; it was the work he began in 1922 with the Hooker telescope that grants him entry in this list. At first, he effectively expanded the universe by proving that its borders were not that of the Milky Way. Then, in 1929, he showed that it is continually expanding with Hubble’s Law: based on Einstein’s General Relativity, the space-time volume of the universe is forever burgeoning. Evolutionists love him for the logical link between Hubble’s Law and the Big Bang.
9 Hipparchus of Nicaea (190 – 120 BC)
Very little survives of the works of Hipparchus, yet he is still considered one of the most significant astronomers in history, partly on account of his influence over Ptolemy. He is credited as the father of trigonometry and for introducing numerical data. His are the oldest surviving models of the sun’s and moon’s movements. With these, he was able to calculate the approach of solar eclipses. In the meticulous work, Hipparchus catalogued over a thousand stars: a number not beaten for three centuries.
8 Edmond Halley (1656 – 1742)
Edmond Halley was the second Astronomer Royal, much like a poet laureate only less frequently discussed. His discoveries are sometimes tarnished by failing to cite the ideas of those who came before him, which were sometimes plagiarised but more often strong influences. Nevertheless, Halley is to thank for publishing Newton’s Principia, which he later used to predict the comet of 1682 would return in 76 years. This comet still orbits the earth and is referred to as Halley’s comet. His concerns were not strictly interstellar. In 1720, for example, he became one of the first to attempt using scientific research to date an object (the Stone Henge in this instance) — a revolutionary idea in itself!
7 Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601)
In 1573, Brahe bravely challenged the celestial sphere theory upheld since Aristotle. His argument was simple: since the heavens were not still (which he proved in the preceding year), they must be imperfect. Brahe was the last of the ‘naked eye astronomers’; Kepler — who follows linearly — will be the first to rely on telescopes, and was assistant to Brahe during his time as Imperial Astronomer of Bohemia. Together, they tried to map out the exhaustive laws of planetary motion. Fortunately, he was never exhausted. Few have recorded such a vast number of observations. Then again, few had the opportunity before him for Tycho Brahe was one of the first modern models of an intellectual.
6 Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827)
We come now to the Newton of France, Pierre-Simon Laplace. His primary concerns were probability and statistics, applied mathematic0-philosophically. It was one of his personal aims (and achievements) to displace the idea that divine intervention was necessary for the stability of the universe. Laplace preempted the Big Bang theory by proposing that the solar system began as a large but thin gaseous entity. If that is not enough, in his twenty-six year, five volume project, Mécanique Céleste, Laplace summarised and extended upon the work of his forerunners from which much can be learned of lost documents and forgotten scientists.
5 Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543)
Nicolaus Copernicus (or Mikołaj Kopernik, or Niclas Koppernigk) looked at the earth, until then always placed at the centre of the universe, and kicked it from importance by developing the first fully formed heliocentric cosmology. Copernicus’ 1543 book, De revoltionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), is usually referred to as the beginning of modern astronomy (paving the way for many of our other “star” astronomers). The vast influence of his work incited so much debate and continued study that it caused an intellectual revolution, known as the Copernican Revolution.
4 Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90 – 168)
Best remembered as the author of Almagest, also called Mathematical Syntaxis, an overwhelming 13 volume edition that has a star catalogue detailing forty eight constellations with names still in use today: Ptolemy is the reason you see a belt when looking up at Orion. This work was so well respected — perhaps, in part, on account of the “user friendly” tables throughout — that it remained the source text until the scientific revolution when geocentricism (the conception of a universe where everything revolves around Earth) was done away with.
3 William Herschel (1738 – 1822)
Curiously, the number three position is taken up by a man who took up astronomy at the age of thirty five, after purchasing Astronomy by James Ferguson. Taking after his father, he had been a musician up until this point and would continue with the practice to death. In the field of astronomy, Herschel initially studied double stars, showing how they are known to orbit one another. This led to the accidental discovery of Uranus and infrared radiation, appointment to the Royal Society, and monetary backing. Becoming a man of leisure was not as simple as leisure for our friend Herschel; he used the time once set aside for earning to map out the milky way and build incomparable telescopes (including one measuring twelve metres!).
2 Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)
No one will argue with you: Kepler is one of the most significant contributors to human understanding the world has ever had. He re-explained planetary motion, correcting previous models to the understanding that is still upheld. Kepler’s advancements in optics show the everyday applicability of his science: he was first to show vision to be a process of refraction, and made glasses for the nearsighted and the farsighted. This research would soon allow him to better contemporary models of the telescope. By considering his work “celestial physics” Kepler was able to encompass a depth that exceeded previous efforts. Just so, he has become a role model in pushing the boundaries of thought. This is also true of the next entry, although don’t let them hear we’ve grouped them!
1 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Our next prolocutor for the freedom of enquiry, Galileo Galilei, heroically defended heliocentrism before the Roman Inquisition — a position he would have to recant to keep his life. The outcome of this was house arrest, quite the treat for a scholar. From there, he was able to make his observations and continue work that suggested no kind of compromise to the state. He is best remembered as this sort of figure, but his contributions too are great. He discovered three of the moons of Jupiter, recognised the unique nature of planets (that they do not share altogether similar traits), identified sunspots, while re-examining knowledge on the Milky Way and sea tides. More than any other astronomer on this list, Galileo Galilei is a story unto itself. For that, he is most influential.