AST 200: History of Astronomy

3 credits | Prerequisites: None

Course rationale

This is an elective course designed for students majoring in physics, mathematics, engineering or computer science. Students can take it as part of a minor or specialization in astronomy and astrophysics or as a free elective. The course intends to give an overview of the 3000-years history of astronomy and its significance in determining the course of human history in general.

Course content

  1. Astronomy Before Written History: the sky as a cultural resource, stone monuments and sanctuaries, communal tombs and burial mounds, astronomy in the Americas, astronomy in modern aboriginal communities.
  2. Ancient Astronomy in the MENA: tablets and boundary stones, astronomy in Babylon, Egyptian and Babylonian calendars, timekeeping in ancient Egypt.
  3. Classical China and India: Chinese star charts and armillary spheres, observational records; Indian star charts and the siddhantas, calendars and timekeeping, Indian mathematical astronomy.
  4. Ancient European Astronomy: heavenly spheres of Greek astronomy, Aristotle’s geocentric model and Eudoxus, Aristarchus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Ptolemy’s equant, the Almagest.
  5. The Islamic World: need of astronomy in Islamic practices, emergence of observatories, Arabic planetary astronomy, asrolabe.
  6. Medieval Latin Astronomy: revival of astronomy in Europe, the spirits that move the heavenly spheres, clockwork, latitude and time at night on board ship, printing and humanism, Copernicus as the culmination of Greek astronomy.
  7. Galilean Transformations: Tycho Brahe’s mammoth observations, a comet and a new star, Tycho’s castle of the stars, Georgian calendar reform, Tychonic system, Kepler’s dynamics, Galileo’s telescope, Descartes and the geometers’ universe.
  8. Newtonian Revolution: the refracting telescope, Newton’s Principia, Hooke’s advocacy, Huygens’ Saturn, Halley’s comet, the reflecting telescope, gravity and elliptical orbits, longitude and the moons of Jupiter, Greenwich Observatory, Laplace and Bode, asteroids and new planets.
  9. Rise of Stars: variable stars, the moving solar system, Bradley and Bessel, distance to the nearest stars, Hooke’s zenith telescope, equatorial mounting, cosmology of stars, Herschels’ construction of the heavens, mapping the Galaxy, the southern skies.
  10. Beginnings of Astrophysics: the community of astronomers, International Astronomical Union, origin of astrophysics in the sun, introduction of photography, large telescopes, solar system studies, rings of Saturn, Pluto, stellar spectroscopy, nebulae, H-R diagrams, uncovering the life history of stars, structure of the Galaxy.
  11. Einsteinian revision: Einstein and expansion of the universe, Eddington’s quest, Hubble and the world of galaxies.
  12. Wavering Wavelengths: extending human vision, cosmic rays, birth of x-ray and radio astronomy, modern multiwavelength astronomies, gravitational wave detectors, telescopes of the future.

Course objectives

  1. Evaluate the significance of ancient astronomy in the birth of human civilizations.
  2. Describe the sky as a common cultural resource for all human societies.
  3. Understand the peaceful and productive passage of astronomical heritage from one culture to another.
  4. Explain the birth of modern science in terms of the Copernican revolution.
  5. Importance of telescopes in the culture of large-scale scientific instrument building.
  6. Describe modern 21st century astronomy as a continuation of a 3000-year old tradition.


  1. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy, edited by Michael Hoskin, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  2. Anton Pannekoek, A History of Astronomy, translated from Dutch, Interscience Publishing Inc., New York, 1961.
  3. C. M. Linton, From Eudoxus to Einstein: A History of Mathematical Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, 2004.