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James Linzel's List: Assignment 3: History of Western Astronomical Thought

    • The emphasis was on the process of  learning about the universe rather  than attaining the goal. But people eventually got tired of learning and wanted  absolute answers.
      • I still argue that this remains the purpose of science. It is the journey, the pursuit of truth, not actually acquiring 'truth' that matters. We will never truly know 'the truth' but the journey ensures we continually get closer to understanding the universe. Many religions believe that scientists are closer to 'God' because of this.

    • Socrates (lived 470--399 B.C.E.) disagreed with the Sophists, teaching that we can attain real truth through  collaboration with others. By exploring together and being skeptical about ``common sense'' notions about the way things are, we can get a correct understanding of how our world and society operate. This idea of being skeptical so that a truer understanding of nature can be found is still very much a part of modern science.

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    • Our view of the history of astronomy will now skip almost 1500 years to the next major advances in astronomy
    • They had preserved and translated the Greek writings and adopted the Greek ideals of logic and rational inquiry. Islamic astronomers were careful observers of the sky and created accurate star catalogs and tables of planet motions. Many of the names of the bright stars in our sky have Arabic names (e.g., Deneb, Alberio, Aldebaran, Rigel to name a few).

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      • What two basic kinds of models have been proposed to explain the  motions of the planets? 
      • What is the Ptolemaic model? What new things did Ptolemy add to his  model? 
      • Why are epicycles needed in Ptolemy's model?
      • In what ways was the Ptolemaic model a good scientific model and in  what ways was it not? 
      • What is the Copernican model and how did it explain retrograde motion?
    • Giordano Bruno (lived 1548--1600 C.E.) revived Democritus' (a contemporary of Socrates) view that the Sun was  one of an infinite number of stars.
      • Galileo Galilei (1564--1642 C.E.) was the first person we know of that used the telescope for astronomical observations (starting in 1609). The telescope was originally used as a naval  tool to assess the strength  of the opponent's fleet from a great distance. He found many new things when he looked through his telescope: 

        1. The superior light-gathering power of his telescope over the naked eye  enabled him to see many, many new fainter stars that were never seen before. This made Bruno's argument more  plausible. 
        2. The superior resolution and magnification over the naked eye enabled him to see pits and craters on the Moon and spots on the Sun. This meant that the Earth is not only place of change and decay! 

            Moon drawing by Galileo

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    • Johaness Kepler (lived 1571--1630 C.E.) was hired by Tycho Brahe to work out the mathematical details of Tycho's version of the geocentric universe.
    • Kepler was motivated by his faith in God to try to discover God's plan in the universe---to ``read the mind of God.'' Kepler shared the Greek view that mathematics was the language of God. He knew that all previous models were inaccurate, so he believed that other scientists had not yet ``read the mind of God.''

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    • Every age has its paradigms. Though scientists try to be objective, philosophical considerations do intrude on the scientific, creative process. That is not a bad thing because these beliefs are crucial in providing direction to  their inquiries and fuel for the creativity mill.
    • Experiments are the sole judge of scientific truth---nature eventually wins. The ideas are crucial to  understanding the world but they eventually yield to the facts. Science makes us  confront the world.
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