The birth of modern astronomy

Wolfe, D. (David)


The motion of objects in the sky has always been of importance to humanity. This course will trace the antecedents of modern astronomy from the creation of early calendars to the achievements of astronomer Johannes Kepler. The Greeks primarily believed in an Earth-centred universe and were interested in mathematical models to predict positions in the heavens. They lacked telescopes but made impressive advances in astronomy, codified in the great work of Ptolemy about 150 CE. The difficulty involved in understanding the motions of the planets, seen from a platform that is itself in motion, led later to Copernicus’ idea of a Sun-centred system. His work was hugely significant, leading to serious conflict with the Catholic Church, the banning of Copernicus’ book and the trial of Galileo. It was not until the 1980s that the Church finally acknowledged its error. In the interim, of course, science had moved considerably. The major problem of distinguishing between the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems was a lack of observational data. The realisation that physical measurements could distinguish truth was itself a great step, attributed to Danish nobleman, Tycho Brahe. The last lectures will focus on the significance of Tycho Brahe and the great astronomer Johannes Kepler in revolutionising the understanding of astronomy and, of course, of fundamental science.

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University of Cape Town

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