Understanding astronomy

What is astronomy?

Astronomy is a scientific pursuit that is focussed on the skies above our heads. All aspects of the heavens fall under the scope of astronomy, from star gazing to the study of meteors and other planets. Generally speaking, it is viewed as a multi-disciplinary science which takes in aspects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and – in some cases – geology. Astronomy should not be confused with cosmology which is the study of the entire universe. It is, therefore, a branch of astronomical research, but not the same thing. These days, some very advanced theories – including quantum physics – are used to explain astronomical phenomena.

 How does astronomy affect our lives?

On the face of it, what astronomers get up to has little bearing on human lives because it is entirely focussed on activity that is taking place outside of the Earth. However, this does not mean that astronomy has nothing to tell ordinary people. It can explain, for example, the sort of astronomical forces we see on our planet, such as the gravitational pull of the moon that makes tides occur. It will also explain phenomena like eclipses which are plainly observable from Earth. In future, it may help human beings to survive, especially if an inhabitable planet is found nearby.

Where does astronomy come from?

People have wondered at the heavens, especially at night, since the dawn of man. Theories to explain the Milky Way, the movement of the sun and the moon were developed in prehistoric times. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians both managed to predict the movement of these celestial objects with a high degree of accuracy, and this was developed further by ancient Persians. However, it was not until the invention of the lens that astronomers were able to make any real progress in this field of science.

Who studies astronomy?

In the main, astronomers study the science of astronomy itself. However, as mentioned previously, it is a multi-disciplinary pursuit. Therefore, theoretical mathematicians - such as Sir Stephen Hawking, for example - have also studied it in order to make observations that might verify their theoretical models. Amateur astronomers look up to the heavens all over the world with their telescopes, sometimes making significant discoveries. Where professional radio-telescopes and other advanced equipment is used, it tends to be because of a funded programme of study. As such, professional astronomers are often referred to as astrophysicists by other academics to distinguish the two groups.

Are astronomy and astrology the same?

Although astrology – the art of predicting how things will turn out due to the movement of the various zodiac groups in the sky – often refers to celestial bodies, it is not the same thing as astronomy. Few scientists give any credence to the work of astrologers which simply makes use of some of the same terminology.

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