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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Astrology is an attempt to explain earthly matters according to the way in which celestial objects relate to one another and the Earth. It has been around for approximately 4,000 years, and its development coincided with the first time people started to study the stars. However, it is a common error to conflate astronomy, the scientific study of the heavens, with astrology which is another pursuit altogether. The practice has often been used to try and explain earthly phenomena according to the position of planets and various constellations of stars in the sky. Often – although not exclusively – the alignment of such celestial bodies is associated with dramatic events or even calamities. It is also commonly used to come up with horoscopes, often connected to the make up of the heavens at the point of someone's birth.
Also known as matrix mechanics and quantum theory, quantum physics is a branch of scientific study which focusses on nature at the sub-atomic level. As distinct from classical physics, which deals with the behaviour of nature at the human scale, quantum theory centres on why atoms – and the sub-atomic particles that make them up – behave in a different way than such a theory would suggest. Linking quantum physics to classical physics has long been the aim of many scientific researchers. Although quantum physics is an ongoing area of research to this day, it was developed on the papers published by famous twentieth-century physicists, notably Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and Max Born.
Sir Isaac Newton built upon the ideas of relativity that were first developed in the 1632 publication of Galileo Galilei who first coined the term with respect to what we now call physics. Although relativity also refers to concepts in social science, it is in physics that it is best known. Galileo described the idea of the relative position, or viewpoint, of an observer as being fundamental to observable science. He came up with the idea that someone below deck on a boat that was travelling at a constant speed without rocking would have no idea if he or she were, indeed, moving. It helped him to explain why the Earth might move around the sun even though human beings cannot sense their planet whizzing through space.
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