Thony Christie on Hevelius

Scutum constellation in the Uranographia
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If you have any interest in the his­tory of astro­nomy you should be fol­low­ing The Renaissance Mathematicus blog and this post, The last great naked eye astro­nomer, is a per­fect example of why. This is a post about Johannes Hevelius who has to be one of the most fam­ous unheard of astro­nomers ever.

That doesn’t make sense I know. There are a lot of people who haven’t heard of Hevelius, but if you have heard of Hevelius, then the idea that people haven’t heard of him seems non­sense because his work is every­where in astronomy.

Scutum constellation in the Uranographia

Scutum in the Uranographia by Hevelius. Source: Wikipedia.

Everyone’s happy that most con­stel­la­tions are ancient, but what is less well-known is that not every star was in a con­stel­la­tion. There were gaps between con­stel­la­tions filled with faint and bor­ing stars. These were called αμορφοι amorphoi or unformed stars by the Greeks. This is no good if you want to do sci­ence, because things like comets don’t stick to the inter­est­ing parts of the sky. That’s why map­ping was so import­ant in the Renaissance. In the case of Hevelius, his maps were so use­ful that he formed seven con­stel­la­tions that stay with us to this day.

I’ll admit con­stel­la­tions like Lacerta or Vulpecula aren’t fam­ous con­stel­la­tions, but he was work­ing with the haps between con­stel­la­tions. The fact that his charts were made of con­stel­la­tions vis­ible in Europe shows he was work­ing in a highly com­pet­it­ive space.

It’s easy to take this kind of work for gran­ted. The out­put can be seen as an uncon­tested fact, but Thony’s post put’s Hevelius’s work into the con­text of its time includ­ing the often intense sci­entific rivalry between astro­nomer defend­ing per­sonal and national status.

The also shows that while with hind­sight it seems obvi­ous that tele­scopes would bring more accur­ate meas­ure­ments, at any given time in his­tory it’s not always obvi­ous that new tech­no­logy is The Next Big Thing, it could be a dis­trac­tion or Expensive Dead End.

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