Mankind has always been fascinated with the heavens since time immemorial. Stargazing was not just a pastime on lovely nights. People navigated the seas and crossed continents with stars as their guide. They even thought the constellations charted their fates. But that was before the giant leap from astrology to astronomy.
Astronomy literally means ‘law of the stars,’ from the Greek words ‘astron’ (star) and ‘nomos’ (law), but astronomers would rather accurately define it as the ‘scientific study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth’s atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation), and is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.’
However long-winded Wikipedia’s definition seems, don’t let it tick you off. There’s more to astronomy than theories, calculations, and tedious observations. One thing’s certain though: astronomy is not for jocks.
Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, was controversial in that it challenged long-held religious perceptions. Copernicus and Galileo Galilei paid dearly for holding on to their correct observations of the solar system – that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around, as the Catholic Church used to insist. Ancient civilizations recorded heavenly phenomena, albeit propped by superstitious underpinnings.
The invention of the telescope, however, provided the significant impetus for the transformation of celestial observations into a veritable science. ‘Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as astrometry, celestial navigation, observational astronomy, the making of calendars, and even astrology,’ Wiki says, ‘but professional astronomy is nowadays often considered to be synonymous with astrophysics.’
Today, professional astronomy is focused on either observation or theory. Observational astronomy acquires and analyzes data using basic principles of physics, while theoretical astronomy is mainly concerned with analytical models to describe objects and phenomena in space. These two branches, of course, complement each other.
However, don’t get the impression that you need a Ph.D. in astrophysics to get suitably curious with the fascinating display of stars on a clear moonless night. Amateur astronomers have made many important astronomical discoveries. In fact, astronomical societies encourage the involvement of amateur observers, the sky being too wide for just professional astronomers to cover.
So start stargazing and don’t just memorize the constellations. You can buy or make your own amateur telescope and watch the sky. To paraphrase the late Carl Saga: in the vastness of the universe and the immensity of time, it is an honor to share a planet, an epoch and a ‘hobby’ with Galileo Galilei.