Thony Christie on Hevelius
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.
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.