The course aims to provide an introduction to the historical development of
modern astronomy. After a brief chronological overview and a discussion of the
scientific status of astronomy and the philosophy of science in general,
the course is divided into a series of thematic topics addressed in roughly
chronological order. We will focus on the nature of discovery in astronomy,
in particular the interplay between theory and observation, the role of
technological advances, and the relationship between astronomy and physics.
The course is divided into ten themes, two of which are introductory and
the remaining eight approximately chronological.
1. Astronomy in History
timeline for history of astronomy with useful context from other sciences and history
2. Astronomy as Science
brief introduction to philosophy of science: empiricism, inductivism,
Popper's falsifiablity criterion, Kuhnian paradigm shifts
3. Early Astronomy: Earth and Sky
application of astronomical phenomena to calendars, time-keeping, navigation
4. Renaissance Astronomy and beyond: the Earth in Space
geocentric and heliocentric cosmologies; orbital motion; stellar distances.
Move from descriptive algorithms ("saving the phenomena") to explanatory approach
as per modern science (Ptolemy→Copernicus→Kepler→Newton).
Concept of universal physical laws (contrast Newton with Aristotle).
End of the era of naked-eye observing.
5. The Rise of the Telescope: the role of instrumentation in astronomical advance
development of telescopes and instrumentation (photography, spectroscopy)
and its effect on astronomical knowledge from Galileo to Hubble;
parallax and the beginnings of the astronomical distance scale;
spectroscopy and the Doppler effect.
6. The Astronomical Zoo: objects and classification systems
evolution of our concepts of astronomical objects and classification systems
and their effects (e.g. recategorising the Sun as a star;
distinguishing between intragalactic "nebulae" and extragalactic "galaxies";
recognising supernovae as distinct from novae, etc.)
20th century advances in understanding of "extreme physics":
quantum & atomic physics and stellar energy generation and evolution;
pulsars as neutron stars; black holes
8. Beyond the Visible 1: radio astronomy
radar and the birth of radio astronomy; challenges of radio astronomy;
impact of radio astronomy on extragalactic astronomy (especially cosmology);
the high redshift universe
impact of general relativity; Hubble law;
Big Bang vs Steady State (case study of hypothesis testing, cf. Topic 2);
Hubble Wars (case study in how not to calculate your systematic errors?);
inflation and the developing linkage between cosmology and particle physics
10. Beyond the Visible 2: impact of space exploration on astronomy
direct impact of space exploration on planetary physics;
increasing impact of space-borne platforms for extending the usable spectrum
(IR, UV, X-rays) and improving resolution (HST, Hipparcos)
The principal recommended text is
- The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, edited by Michael Hoskin
More or less what it says on the can! Covers most of the course,
but weak on more recent "history", e.g. space-based instrumentation.
Also worth consulting are:
- Anton Pannekoek, History of Astronomy
Highly respected textbook, but somewhat dated
(English edition originally published in 1961, Dutch original in 1951).
Very detailed on astronomy in antiquity (Babylonians and Greeks).
- Hugh Thurston, Early Astronomy
Goes into more detail than Hoskin, but more readable than Pannekoek.
Only covers the era of naked-eye astronomy (i.e. stops ~1600).
Useful for Topic 2:
- Alan Chalmers, What is this thing called Science?
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality:
an introduction to the philosophy of science
Two clear and sensible (by the standards of these things)
introductions to the philosophy of science.
- Gregory Derry, What Science is and How it Works
Rather broader and less technical discussion of the nature of science,
including scientific method, scientific worldview, science vs pseudoscience, etc.
All of these are available in the Information Commons or the Main Library.
The assessment for this module has three parts:
- The end-of-semester exam (40%)
- Covers the taught material. The rubric is "Answer any
three questions (out of six)." Obviously, given the nature of the course,
these are descriptive questions, not numerical.
- For example questions with comments and outline answers, see the
lecture notes page.
- A "News and Views" article (20%)
- Discuss a classic paper in astronomy in the style of a Nature
"News and Views" article. The aim of this exercise is to test your ability to
set a piece of astronomical work in its proper historical context and explain this
successfully to a non-specialist audience.
- A 3000-word essay (40%)
- Write an essay on a topic in the history of astronomy (choose any one from
a list of about ten). The aim of this exercise is to develop your skills in
retrieving and assimilating information from a variety of written sources, and
in communicating this in a clear, informative, well-structured and properly
More information can be found in the page on coursework.