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Historical Documents

Oldest Record of a Nova
The two central columns of characters of the inscription on this ancient Chinese oracle-bone, dating from about 1300 B.C.E., reads, "on the 7th day of the month, a chi-ssu day, a great new star appeared in company with Antares." From Colin A. Ronan's book The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: An Abridgement of Joseph Needham's Original Text.
Source: Ancient Astronomy, Asia, Image ID: Chinese Nova [image no longer on Web]

Calculation of Sun/Moon Distance Ratio by Aristarchus
This image is from a tenth century Greek copy of a noteworthy work by Aristarchus of Samos written in the second century B.C.E. titled "On the Distances and Sizes of the Sun and Moon," in which he calculates the ratio of the distance between Earth and the Sun to that between Earth and the Moon. (His estimate was more than an order of magnitude too small, but the fault was in his lack of accurate instruments rather than in his correct method of reasoning.) This detail compares the line subtending the arc dividing the light and dark portions of the Moon in a lunar eclipse with the relative diameters of the Moon and the Sun. Aristarchus also found an improved value for the length of the solar year.
Sources: Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit, Greek Mathematics and Its Modern Heirs, Vat. gr. 204 fol. 116 recto math06 NS.02;
The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive Entry on Aristarchus.

Detail 1 from Ptolemy's Almagest
Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the second century C.E., wrote the extremely influential treatise that came to be called the "Almagest" in about 150 C.E. This work covered elements of spherical astronomy, solar, lunar, and planetary theory, eclipses, and the fixed stars. It remained the definitive authority on its subject for nearly fifteen hundred years. This image shows a detail from Book VI, Chapter 7, of a late-1400s copy of George Trebizond's Latin translation (ca. 1451) of this work. The drawing illustrates the computation of the duration of solar and lunar eclipses. This elaborate manuscript of the translation, with the figures drawn in several colors, was dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV by George's son Andreas.
Source: Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit, Greek Astronomy, Vat. lat. 2055 fol. 101 verso math17 NS.08

Detail 2 from Ptolemy's Almagest
This image shows a detail from Book X, Chapter 7, of a thirteenth century translation of Ptolemy's Almagest made from Arabic to Latin in Spain in 1175 by Gerard of Cremona. This image illustrates Ptolemy's kinematic model for the motion of the superior planets—Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. According to this geocentric model, Earth is at rest at (e), and the planets move uniformly with respect to a point (r), which is separated from the center of their spheres (d). This device produced predictions for the paths of the planets in the sky that closely approximate those resulting from the elliptical orbits in which planets actually move.
Source: Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit, Greek Mathematics and Its Modern Heirs, Image ID: Vat. lat. 2057 fol. 147 recto math11a NS.10

Detail from ad-Din at-Tusi, Tadhkira
Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi (1201–1274) was among the Arabic astronomers of the late thirteenth century at the observatory of Maragha in Persia who modified Ptolemy's models based on mechanical principles in order to preserve the uniform rotation of spheres. This early Arabic manuscript contains his principal work on the subject, the "Tadhkira fi ilm al-Haya" (Memoir on Astronomy). The figure shown in this detail from a fourteenth-century copy of his manuscript is his ingenious device for generating rectilinear motion along the diameter of the outer circle from two circular motions.
Source: Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit, Greek Astronomy, Image ID: Vat. ar. 319 fol. 28 verso math19 NS.15

Medieval View of the World
This panel, from a 1504 painting by Hieronymous Bosch called The Garden of Earthly Delight, is part of a large, 3-part piece called a triptych. The painting was probably made for the private enjoyment of a noble family. It is named for a luscious garden painted in the central panel (not shown). The portion linked here is from the outer wings, or shutters, that are seen when the triptych is closed. It depicts a stylized medieval view of the third day of the creation of the world, including a flat Earth with clouds floating in a spherical firmament, and a void surrounding the spherical bubble enclosing Earth. Although this point of view was not prevalent or widely shared among educated members of the society in the Middle Ages, who had inherited much of their astronomical knowledge from documents such as those shown above, it did hold a certain amount of sway among members of the general public.
Source: Mark Harden's FTP Archive, Bosch, Image ID: delighto.jpg
Also available via WebMuseum, Bosch, Hieronymus, "The Garden of Earthly Delight (Outer wings)"

Illustration from De Revolutionibus
This image shows the order and concentricity of the orbits of the newly revived heliocentric model of the solar system proposed in the early 1500s by Nicholas Copernicus. The page shown is from the "autograph" (intermediate between a rough and a fair copy), which was Copernicus's own version of the manuscript. This copy was made between 1520 and 1541, and had remained in the author's hands until his death in 1543. It is preserved in the Jagiellonian Library, Cracow, Poland.
Source: Biblioteka Jagiellonska, Medieval Manuscripts, Image ID: Book 1, f. 11 recto

Galileo's Starry Messenger
Galileo Galilei constructed his first telescope in July 1609, based on reports of the existence of other models, which he had not seen, at different locations in Europe. It wasn't long before he began to make and record a series of startling observations, including the discovery of innumerable stars never seen before, mountains on the Moon, four satellites of Jupiter which moved, and other celestial phenomena that increased his personal belief in the Copernican System. The phenomena which were revealed little by little through his use of ever-larger lenses were described and illustrated by Galileo in "Sidereus Nuncius" (Starry Messenger), which caused an overnight sensation.
Source: The Art of Renaissance Science, Galileo Part II: Heavenly Bodies, Image ID: zsidnuncius

Newton's Sketch of the Orbit for the Comet of 1680
Sir Isaac Newton drew this diagram of the orbit of the comet of 1680 to illustrate his calculations regarding its properties in his master work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, usually known as the Principia. Building on Kepler's laws of planetary motion and on suggestions from others (most notably Robert Hooke) that elliptical orbits must follow from an inverse square force law of attraction to the parent, Newton went much further and solved the problem completely in the Principia by proving that an inverse square law must have solutions that can produce elliptical, parabolic, or hyperbolic orbits, and proposed his now famous Law of Universal Gravitation, which states that all objects in the universe attract all other objects with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Source: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, Orbits and Gravitation, Image ID: Newton_Comet.jpeg

Astronomical Instruments

Detail from Albatenius's Stellarum
This is a condensed detail from the cover page of a 1645 copy of the work "De Numeris Stellarum et Motibus" by Abu-Abdallah Muhammad Ibn-Gabir Battani (858–929 C.E.), also known as Albatenius. The illustration shows medieval astronomical instruments popular at the time of publication of this edition. Several of these are of types in use since the time of the early astronomers and refined later, as shown in the examples shown in the images. The work of Albatenius and other Arab astronomers provided a vital link between mathematical progress made by early Greek astronomers and later efforts that led eventually to the birth of modern astronomy.
Source: Universitat Augsburg, Bibliothek Oettingen-Wallerstein, Image ID: Book number 2759316

Large Armillary Sphere
Since the time of Eratosthenes in the third century B.C.E., instruments of this type were widely used by natural philosophers of the Alexandrian school to represent the coordinates of the celestial sphere. These "armillary spheres" consisted of graduated metallic rings designating the equator, the ecliptic, and certain meridians and parallels. This "skeleton" of metal rings (armillae) was supported by a fixed ring representing the local horizon and could be adapted to the latitude and longitude of the observer. Earth was represented at the center of this sphere, together with, in the more complicated models, the Sun, the Moon, and other planets. By correctly placing bodies inside the sphere and the rings, it was possible to solve problems of spherical astronomy and compute the coordinates of the stars on the celestial sphere.
Source: Universita di Bologna, Museo della Specola, Museum Catalogue: Armillary Spheres, Image ID: D. Lusverg, Rome, 1744

Portraits of Astronomers

Nicholas Copernicus
Copernicus came from a middle class background and received a good standard humanist education, studying first at the University of Krakow (then the capital of Poland) and then traveling to Italy where he studied medical sciences, Latin, Greek, mathematics, and law at the universities of Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara. When he returned to his native land of Poland, Copernicus practiced medicine, though his official employment was as a canon in the cathedral chapter, working under a maternal uncle who was, first, Bishop of Olsztyn (Allenstein), and then Bishop of Frombork (Frauenburg). While he was in Italy, Copernicus visited Rome, and it seems to have been for friends there that in about 1513 he wrote a short account of what has since become known as the Copernican theory, namely that the Sun (not Earth) is at rest in the center of the universe. The work of proving that the term "universe" should be modified to "solar System" in this statement and of providing a mathematical and physical foundation for this idea fell to later workers. Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543.
Source: Joachim Reinhardt, Pictures of Famous Physicists, Image ID: Nicholas Copernicus

Tycho Brahe in 1601
This portrait of the then-famous astronomer was made when he was 55 years old, shortly before his death, by E. Desrochers. Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler were contemporaries; Tycho, as he is often called, preceded Kepler as Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Empire. His extensive, carefully made collection of measurements, which Tycho personally thought would provide evidence to validate and extend the Ptolemaic geocentric system, actually provided Kepler and others with the raw material they would need to confirm that Copernicus was right.
Source: National Library of Medicine, Images from the History of Medicine, Image ID: Ticho-Brahe, Portrait no. 6625

Galileo Galilei
Galileo was born in 1564 in Pisa, Italy. In the summer of 1609, he heard about a spyglass that a Dutchman had shown in Venice. From these reports, and using his own technical skills as a mathematician and as a workman, Galileo made a series of telescopes whose optical performance was much better than that of the Dutch instrument. The astronomical discoveries he made with his telescopes were described in a short book called Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), the cover to which is shown above. The discoveries made with this and other telescopes quickly transformed the entire field of astronomy from the theoretical philosophy of motion of heavenly objects into a full-fledged experimental science.
Source: Joachim Reinhardt, Pictures of Famous Physicists, Image ID: Galileo Galilei

Johannes Kepler
Kepler was a devout, but not completely orthodox, Lutheran. He attended the University of Tübingen, where he studied both Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy before taking a position teaching mathematics at Graz. He took over the position as the Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague from Tycho Brahe in 1601. In a series of publications between 1596 and 1619, building on Brahe's extensive experimental observations, Kepler proved that planets move round the Sun in elliptical orbits and laid out three mathematical laws of planetary motion. His Rudolphine Tables (1627), based on Tycho's observations and these laws, proved to be accurate over a long time scale, and their success did much to gain general acceptance for heliocentric astronomy.
Source: Joachim Reinhardt, Pictures of Famous Physicists, Image ID: Johannes Kepler

Isaac Newton in 1689
This is the earliest portrait of Newton to survive. It was painted when Newton was in London as a member of the Convention Parliament, following the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Newton was then 46 years old. The artist was Godfrey Kneller, a prominent portrait painter of his day. For a complete biography, see the page on Sir Isaac Newton at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive.
Source: Newtonia: pages about Sir Isaac Newton, Portraits (site currently offline), Image ID: 1689 Kneller

For biographies and more insight into the work of these and other mathematicians and astronomers, see the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, which is the source for some of the information presented above, and the History of Women in Astronomy at San Francisco State University. Portraits of other scientists along with some examples of classical art related to astronomy can be found in the Windows to the Universe Art Archives.






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