- Area: Science
- Program: Physics
- Type of Writing: Essay (Explorative)
- Course Level: 1000
- Year: 2017
- Paper ID: S.P.E.1.2.8
A Conversation on Astronomy: How Astronomy Changed the World
Astronomy is something that we often take for granted. The things that it has brought us and the ways that it has dramatically influenced our daily lives is not often discussed, and certainly not analyzed. In this paper, I will reveal the result of multiple conversations that I have had on the topic as well as the realizations that have come about as a result. I have had a discussion of the importance of astronomy with three of my family members: my father, my mother, and my sister. All of them have very different opinions, as well as reflections that both surprised me and intrigued me.
I shall begin the discussion with the results from my mother. She sees the world in a perspective involving people instead of analysis, and I was eager to get her opinion on the subject. My mother was uncertain to begin discussing the subject, but her hesitancy quickly turned to passion when I asked her how she believed astronomy affected the ancient world. She quickly caught on, and explained in great detail the influence ancient astronomy had on the civilizations of the world. Predicting the length of seasons, for example, was crucial to the survival of ancient peoples because they lived in a society that used plants as a food source. Knowing when the “wet” seasons and the “dry” seasons would occur gave them a better crop yield, which in turn gave them a better chance for survival.
The influence of winter on these peoples were also devastating. Besides the chilling weather that may cause hypothermia if they did not have adequate shelter, the ancients also had to worry about the lack of crops during this time. Food was scarce, so learning to prepare for this harsh season was critical to their survival. My mother pointed out that the solstices were used as an announcement for both winter and summer; which were not only used for survival, but for holidays and celebrations as well. She discusses the traditions in these holidays, specifically the winter solstice, which gradually morphed into what we now know today as Christmas. I mention the star that can often be found on the top of the Christmas tree, which is meant to represent the star that the wisemen follow to guide them to the place of Christ’s birth. We begin to discuss the influence of stars on various ancient religions as well, and the phenomena of stars in religion is by no means a modern invention. Ra, for example; the Egyptian god on the sun, was also believed in ancient mythology to have created the sky and the Earth. As the main- and arguably the most important- god in Egyptian mythology, Ra was a god that represented the science of astronomy as the pinnacle of power. The idea of the sun bringing life is by no means a new one, and the influences from this idea can be found in current religions as well as ancient ones.
When my mother and I finished our discussion, I left in search of my sister. She was never particularly interested in science, so getting her to discuss it was a herculean feat. She eventually conceded, and we began to discuss the influences of astronomy. My sister begins with the topic of the moon, and when I bring up the ancient association with the moon and madness, she (rather humorously) brings up the topic of werewolves. Werewolves, as I’m sure you know, refers to the story of a man turning into a wolf- typically when the moon is full.
Insanity has thought to be linked to the cycle of the moon since ancient times. Proof of this claim can be found in ancient Greek mythology, which tells of a man named Lycaon. Lycaon infuriated Zeus by serving him the corpse of his own son in order to test the claim that Zeus was omniscient. In response, Zeus brought Lycaon’s son to life and transformed Lycaon and his offspring into wolves as punishment. Certain elements of the popular werewolf myth are missing from this tale, but the essence is there.
My sister also mentioned another major influence of astronomy in our daily lives: time. Time is calculated by using the moon and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The moon is used to calculate the day, and the Sun is used to calculate the year. The Sun is also used to calculate the time of day by using sundials and shadow. The sunlight, understandably, has had a very crucial effect on the lives of people up until the breakthrough invention of electricity. Working was only possible when daylight was available, but days grow shorter in winter. When work was needed most, it usually wasn’t possible. Electricity fixed this problem, and is used for light to this day.
When our conversation begins to wind down, I thank my sister for her time and begin to discuss the topic of astronomy with my father. As a man with science-based mentality and methodology, my father is an excellent candidate for this discussion. He mentions the necessity of understanding the tides- a critical point of understanding for fisherman and sailors. Caused by the push and pull of the moon, the tides are a very important part of everyday life. If the person lived near the coast, then it would be especially crucial. Proper understanding of the tides can help to prevent some water damage caused by high tide by building the structure further away from the water. Understanding the tides also allow for a fisherman to catch more fish and make a better living. And, of course, the sailors of the world all appreciate this knowledge as well because it improves navigation.
When my father begins to discuss navigation, it is clear that there is more to that story. He explains that while the moon and the sun were obviously used to calculate direction, many constellations and stars also assisted. The North Star; aptly named because of its position in the north, is used to calculate many things. Distance, direction, navigation, mapping, and even more uses can all benefit from stars being used in navigation. However, there are many constellations and important stars that all must be used by these people for survival as well as comfort. The problem of memorizing all of these constellations was solved by creating stories to fit them. Mythologies and folk stories, passed down from generation to generation, would serve as a conduit for ease of memory. These stories also provided entertainment, and for many mythologies, explanations of the gods and natural phenomena. Humans crave explanations, and in the absence of knowledge, they create myths to explain the world around them. In Greek mythology, for example, the constellation Aquarius was used to explain the phenomena of rain.
Astronomy is something that influences our lives dramatically but is rarely appreciated. It has influenced everything from how we tell time to navigation. It is very critical in our understanding of the natural world and the natural phenomena we experience around us. Astronomy, from its birth in ancient times, has been used to explain what we could not. It gave us traditions as well as pragmatic facts, and it is as much engrained in our behavior as our brain. We thrive on explanation, and ancient civilizations used the stars as our explanation. The ancient civilizations, remarkably, weren’t that far off from the truth. We have astronomy to thank for so much that we have, and it is only fitting to have a conversation on it every now and again. Because astronomy, even in ancient times, has changed the world.
“Lycaon.” Greek Mythology, www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Mortals/Lycaon/lycaon.html.
Mythology of the constellation Aquarius. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://www.heavens-above.com/myth.aspx?con=aqr
Ra | The Sun God of Egypt. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://www.ancient-egypt-online.com/egyptian-god-ra.html