There are a few astronomers, so well known that if someone were to name a famous astronomer, it would likely be one of these 8 astronomers. Their contributions changed how societies and civilizations viewed astronomy and the world around them. These astronomers are spread throughout time and is not a recency bias. These descriptions are not an exhaustive description of these astronomers careers, but rather a high level overview of some of their most famous accomplishments.
Claudius Ptolemy, most commonly known as Ptolemy, wrote many scientific treatises, one of which was the astronomical treatise now known as the Almagest. The Almagest is the only surviving comprehensive ancient treatise on astronomy, which is important because The Almagest is notable because it contains a star catalogue, which lists 48 constellations that could be observed in the sky. This star catalogue of constellations is ancestral to the modern system of constellations but, does not cover the whole sky. Rather the constellations catalogues only what could be seen with the naked eye at the time. For over a thousand years, the Almagest was the authoritative text on astronomy across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa
Often called the “father” of observational astronomy, modern-era classical physics, the scientific method, and modern science, Galileo reshaped the scientific world. He used the telescope for scientific observations of celestial objects. His contributions to observational astronomy include telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, observation of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, observation of Saturn’s rings, and analysis of lunar craters and sunspots. He is also famous for championing of Copernican heliocentrism, the Earth rotating daily and revolving around the Sun, and was met with opposition from within the Catholic Church and from some astronomers.
Johannes Kepler is was a German scientist that us a key figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution. He is probably best known for his laws of planetary motion, and his books Astronomia nova, Harmonice Mundi, and Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, which provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. Kepler described his new astronomy as “celestial physics”, as “an excursion into Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, and as “a supplement to Aristotle’s On the Heavens.” It transformed the ancient tradition of physical cosmology by treating astronomy as part of a universal mathematical physics. Additionally, he did fundamental work in the field of optics, as he invented an improved version of the refracting (or Keplerian) telescope, and was mentioned in the telescopic discoveries of his contemporary Galileo Galilei.
Isaac Newton is a giant, as his contributions to science are so great, it would take books to describe his contributions. However, in summary, he built the first practical reflecting telescope and contributed greatly in the theory of universal gravitation, the nature of white light and calculus. With his contributions, modern science and astronomy are greatly improved and further than they otherwise would be. This doesn’t do him justice, for this towering scientist.
Hubble was an American astronomer, who played a crucial role in establishing the fields of extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology. Hubble proved that many objects previously thought to be clouds of dust and gas and classified as “nebulae” were actually galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Hubble provided evidence that the recessional velocity of a galaxy increases with its distance from the Earth, a property now known as Hubble’s law. It implies that the universe is expanding. Hubble’s name is most widely recognized for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was named in his honor
Halley was an English astronomer, mathematician and physicist, who became the 2nd Astronomer Royal in Britain, succeeding John Flamsteed in 1720. He is famous for cataloguing the southern celestial hemisphere and recorded a transit of Mercury across the Sun. He would also realize that a similar transit of Venus could be used to determine the distances between Earth, Venus, and the Sun. Halley would also encourage and help fund the publication of Isaac Newton’s influential Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. From observations Halley made in September 1682, he used Newton’s laws of motion to compute the periodicity of Halley’s Comet in his 1705 Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets.
A German-born British astronomer, Herschel constructed his first large telescope in 1774, which he used over a 9 year period to carry out sky surveys to investigate double stars. Herschel published catalogues of nebulae in 1802 and in 1820, and would discover Uranus, the first planet to be discovered by telescope and not sight. Herschel would pioneer the use of astronomical spectrophotometry, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra.
A Polish Renaissance polymath, Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at its center. Although he wasn’t the first to propose and formulate that the sun was at the center, not the Earth, his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, just before his death in 1543 was a major scientific event. His book triggered the Copernican Revolution and thus becoming a pioneering contribution to the Scientific Revolution.
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