The Sumerians and ancient greeks were expert astronomers. I have not got much data on Sumerian astronomers, but suffice to say that they gave us the degree as a unit of angular measurement as they liked a sexagesimal system and 360 was almost the same as the number of days in a year. The Greeks came later but on quite a few of them I can find enough data to help me fill this page. Among them we find the following people:
Hicetas of Syracuse (4th century BC)
To explain the apparent motion of the fixed stars, Hicetas taught his students that the earth was spinning on its own axis. What a strange idea, all the more so as no one can feel the movement.
Because of this I award him posthumously the Nobel prize in Astronomy.
Aristarchus of Samos (ca 310 - 264 BC)
Aristarchus believed that sun was the centre of the universe, that the wanderers (planets) rotated around the sun as did the earth, the moon was an exception as it was obvious it went around the earth. And the rotation of the earth as explained by Hicetas completed the picture.
And on a saturday afternoon (it could have been a sunday) while relaxing on a lounge chair in his backyard, he decided that the reason the moon was showing only 1/2 a circle at the first quarter (or was it the last ?) was obviously because the sun was making a right angle triangle between sun, moon, and Aristarchus himself. He immediately set out to measure the angle between the moon and the sun, and using his trigonometric tables (yes they sort of already existed back then) he concluded that the tangent of 87 degrees being about 20, the sun was 20 times further away from the earth than was the moon.
His measurement was in error (it's a very difficult measurement, not least of all because you'll go blind if you look at the sun for too long), 89° 51' being closer to the correct answer. This in turn makes the sun 400 times further away from us than the moon, nevertheless Aristarchus's measurement is the first recorded extraterrestrial measurement that I know of.
Aristarchus I bestow upon you a Nobel prize in astronomy!
Erastosthenes (ca 276 - 196 BC)
Erastothenes, when he was not busy making sieves (all in prime condition), was the royal librarian at Alexandria. He knew that in Syene (where Aswan is at present) there was a dry well (why would any one want to build a dry well in the middle of a semi desert I have no idea. I also believe the well still exists to this day but is no longer dry as it became submerged after the Aswan dam was built) and this well was remarkable because on the summer solstice at noon there was no shadow at the bottom of the well (Aswan is right smack on the tropic of cancer). This shows that the sun is dead overhead. Erastosthenes on the very same day measured the noon shadow cast by a very tall vertical rod and calculated the angle subtended by the distance from Syene and Alexandria as they are roughly on the same longitude. The distance between Alexandria and Syene he estimated by talking to camel drivers to find how long it took them to go to Syene. Now it's a well known fact that you cannot hurry nor slow down a camel (not for long anyway), they either walk at the camel standard speed, or they stop. Based on this meager data, Erastothenes calculated the diameter of the earth and his result was only 5% out.
For this novel use of a camel, Erastothenes, I also award you a Nobel prize (and please no more sieves!).
Hipparchus & Ptolemy
Hipparchus worked on the island of Rhodes from 161 to 126 BC (obviously an original Rhodes scholar but in a different class to Bob Hawke or Bill Clinton) and through his meticulous observations, built a geocentric system which would allow the prediction of the position of stars and planets to the necessary accuracy required by sailors. Without this Chris Colombus would never have wandered away from Spain. To Hipparchus goes the honour of having discovered the precession of the equinoxes caused by the 26000 year periodic wobble of the earth. To Hipparchus also goes the honour of being the 2nd to make an extraterrestrial estimation of distance, as , from his observation of the moon, he concluded from the parallax error at the rising or setting time that the distance from the earth to the moon was about 30 earth diameters. Pretty damn close for a first attempt.
As for Claudius Ptolemy, well from 127 to 151 AD he systematized trigonometry to what it is today and applied it himself to surveying and making maps. Anyone who has seen a map of the world as reproduced by Ptolemy cannot help but be impressed, all the European countries are shown and perfectly recognisable (including Ireland), only Scotland is slightly unbalanced and leaning decidedly to the right (perhaps due to excessive whiskey intake by the surveyor), the top part of Africa (all the way to the equator) is there in accurate details, the red sea, India, Madagascar etc...
For these achievements, Hipparchus and Ptolemy, you may share the Nobel prize of astronomy.
Then Christianity took over and thanks to the enlightened and extremely tolerant views of the catholic church, the world returned to being flat and anyone daring to argue otherwise was simply put to death.(Obviously the successive popes had never been on a boat as I am sure the vision of the world as flat was not one held by any sailor, too many sailing facts contradict it).
Nic wanted to simplify the system of epicycles, circles and eccentrics devised by Hipparchus. He had access to the writing of the ancient greeks and was aware that heliocentric motion had been proposed in the past (at least with regards to Mercury and Venus). So Copernicus applied it anew to all planets, earth included. For a long time the theory was passed on orally (one had to be careful in those enlightened days), but eventually "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" was published a few weeks before his death on the 24th of May, 1543.
Well done Nic, too bad you still insisted on circular motions for the planets. You too deserve a Nobel prize.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)
Tycho Brahe was the last and greatest of all the naked eyes astronomers. In the same class as Hipparchus, he was fortunate to have the patronage of the king of Denmark and built an observatory on a grander scale than had ever been done before with a 19 feet quadrant. When the king died, he moved to Prague, carrying his quadrant under his arm, and continued observing and recruiting for help a young assistant by the name of Kepler.
Tycho, even though you still believed in the geocentric theory, your observations were flawless. Please accept, as a token of my appreciation, the Nobel prize of astronomy.
Johann Kepler (1571-1630)
Johann took up the torch after Tycho Brahe died. Unlike Brahe, he believed in Copernicus's theory of heliocentricity and with access to the data gathered by Brahe, he was able to deduct that:
- The orbits of the planets were ellipses instead of circles, the sun being at one of the focii.
- For each planet the line from the sun to the planet sweeps equal areas in equal times.
- The square of the periodic times of the planets is proportional to the cube of their mean distances from the sun.
Johann, you truly deserve the Nobel prize too. It took Newton to explain the significance of your laws, but for the need of astronomers or navigators, your theory was plainly sufficient.
By being first in observing the universe with a telescope, Galileo brought to an end naked eye astronomy. He showed that the wanderers were discs rather than points of light, and that Venus went through similar phases as the moon. He was the first to see Jupiter's satellites, objects which did not orbit the earth directly. This was the death knell for the geocentric view of the universe.
Two Nobel prizes for you Galileo, one for astronomy and one for your work on optics.
Edmund Halley (1656-1742)
Ed, by correctly guessing that the apparent parabolic trajectory of comets was probably only an elongated ellipse, and that the comets returned to visit us at regular intervals you made a name for yourself , being the first to predict when a comet would appear. The comet which you predicted would appear in 1758 did appear, as it did again in 1835 , 1910 and 1987. You also took upon yourself to publish Newton's work as shown by the letter you wrote to him: "I have at length brought your book to an end, and I hope it will please you...I intend the price of them, bound in calves' leather, and lettered, to be 9 shillings here."
9 shillings for Newton's Principia, bound in calves leather, seems like pretty good value to me.
Ed, for all you've done , and for your comet, I award you a Nobel prize. Presentation day will be in 2065 when your comet turns up again.
Sir William Herschel (1738-1822)
Discovered Uranus in 1781 and also gave the asteroids the name "asteroids". He also catalogued about 2000 nebulae, discovered several satellites of Uranus and Saturn, studied the rotation of planets. Discovered and studied binary stars.
Bill , well done , you are also found to be worthy of a Nobel prize.
Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier (1811-77) & John Couch Adams (1819-1892)
By independently calculating the orbit of a yet unknown planet which could explain the irregularities of planet Uranus, you helped locate Neptune. Although it was J.G.Galle (1812-1910) who found it, it was found where you had said it should be.
As a consequence I can do no less than awarding a Nobel Prize for you to share.
Clyde William Tombaugh
When the orbit of Neptune was equally found to contain some unexplained irregularities, it was suspected that another planet must exist, however, unlike in the case of Neptune, there was no prediction of where to find the source of the perturbations. Yet, you found Pluto in 1930 from the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff Arizona. The last planet of the solar system to be discovered.
Clyde, I am pleased to present you with a Nobel prize. (You may share it with Bonnie if you wish)
Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953)
Edwin has the privilege of being the person to have caused Albert Einstein to say: "I have made my greatest blunder". Albert had to introduce what he called a cosmological constant in his general theory of relativity to retain a static universe. Edwin however demonstrated quite clearly that the universe was not static and that the cosmological constant was not needed. Albert had missed his chance of predicting a non static universe on the basis of his theory. Well don't feel too bad about it Al, there are quite a few relativitists who now believe your cosmological constant will be needed after all to achieve a successful T.O.E. (theory of everything).
For causing Al's blunder, I award you a Nobel prize Edwin.
Jocelyn as a research student at Cambridge in 1967 discovered a source of radio wave pulses coming from outer space which were so regular that, if my memory is correct, she and her supervisor (Antony Hewish) called it LGM-1 (for "little green men") . The first pulsar had been discovered. Despite this, the Stockholm committee which decides the awards of Nobel prizes (the real ones) decided not to award one to Jocelyn though her boss was awarded one. I believe this is a great miscarriage of justice and Jocelyn may not have a PhD and she may be a woman but
SHE FOUND IT FIRST.
Therefore Jocelyn, on my behalf and that of all who value justice and recognize true worth, I award you the Nobel prize that those scumbags in Stockholm have denied you. May the feminist movement hound them all to hell!!!
For viewing our planet Earth as seen from outer space by the various satellites orbiting at present, I highly recommend the Swiss site www.fourmilab.ch.
All comments and criticisms (especially if you can add to the data and nominate other worthy recipients of Nobel prizes) will be welcome. Email me.