The future archaeological site of Spaceport America. Photo (cc) Jared Tarbell
There’s a thought-provoking post on Space Archaeology about how you define the term Space Archaeology. I’ve generally just thought of it as the archaeology of remains associated with spaceflight, but I’ve never seen the need to give the definition any serious thought. It’s a small enough field as it is without drawing up boundaries. Steve Wilson (I assume, the blog is uncredited) has given it more thought, and he’s come up with a much more interesting way of looking at it. He sees Space Archaeology as being made up from Aerospace Archaeology (the bit I was thinking about), Xenoarchaeology (the material remains of alien civilisations) and Exoarchaeology (any material remains that are offworld).
My first reaction was does this add anything? Adding in Xenoarchaeology is awkward as there are no known alien artefacts. There’s crank material of ancient astronauts and various forms of SETI which are anthropological concerns and not specifically archaeological. Adding Exoarchaeology only adds fictional material. Things like the archaeology of terraforming would fit in this category. As it stands it only adds an archaeology of things that don’t exist. The diagram also excludes Space Heritage and Space Junk, which do exist. As a definition, I’m don’t think it helps. However as an analytical tool, I think it could be very clever.
I’ll start with Xenoarchaeology, because that’s the field that’s easiest to dismiss as barmy. What’s the evidence of palaeocontact? There isn’t any really. But thinking about how people do Xenoarchaeology, and what would be necessary to show the presence of alien material on earth could be useful. Tools developed in this area can then be applied to ‘crash sites’ like Roswell in the diagram where Xenoarchaeology and Aerospace Archaeology intersect. You won’t learn anything about alien civilisations by studying Roswell, but you could learn about how humans react to perceived alien visitation. Such research could have helped at Carancas. Likewise a serious study of how xenoarchaeology is practiced could give genuinely useful insights into the assumptions in SETI programmes.
Similarly Exoarchaeology poses its own problems when looking at inaccessibility. Thinking about these issues could highlight how the archaeology of spaceflight in orbital space makes demands and challenges that we simply don’t have on the ground. Thinking about it this way Space Heritage and Space Junk could straddle every zone between Exoarchaeology and Space Archaeology. It depends on whether you class the human waste matter on the Moon as part of Aerospace Archaeology or not. I’d include Space Junk / Exogarbology too, because a lot of terrestrial archaeology is the study of junk.
While Space Archaeologists might not need boundaries, drawing up definitions can highlight what makes a field interesting and also throw some basic assumptions that need questioning. The one that bothers me is the idea of Xenoarchaeology.
Oddly, it’s not the Xeno bit. I could be pedantic and say archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. Still, the sticking with human is a throwback to the early nineteenth century when Man (preferably with a moustache and stovepipe hat) was a creation apart from the animals. Early palaeolithic archaeology, palaeontology and primatology are similar enough that it’s looking more and more like an arbitrary distinction about where human ends. It’s the archaeology bit that troubles me. The study through material remains when, so far as is known, there are no known material remains of extra-terrestrial activity near Earth. I think studying the human reaction to proposed alien interventions is an interesting research problem. We study ancient faiths, so why not study modern faiths too? It’s just that archaeology isn’t always the best way of doing it. Sometimes a better approach is anthropology.
I realise that by now my response is a bit longer than the original post, which was flagging up an idea and not intended as a fully formed model of Space Archaeology. Even so I think it’s an interesting way of thinking about what archaeologists of space exploration do. I’d love to see it developed further.
I went to Skeptics in the Pub last week at Nottingham to hear a talk by Doug Ellison on the exploration of Mars. One of the subjects that came up was the Gorilla. The Sun recently reported that a Mars rover had found evidence of a Silverback gorilla while rambling across the dusty and arid plains of Mars. ‘Enthusiast Nigel Cooper — who has studied thousands of photos taken by Nasa rovers and posted online — said: “It’s definitely a creature of some sort.“‘
I’m rubbish at debunking this kind of thing. Basically I get as far as a lack of bananas and rain forest before yawning. If someone seriously thinks that the governments of the world are conspiring to hide the existence of a lone, and presumably very hungry, gorilla then they have more urgent problems than a lack of basic biology or geology. What is it that makes a global conspiracy to hide evidence of an advanced civilisation on Mars, with pyramids, faces and anomalous gorillas plausible? Unambiguous evidence of life on Mars would be a key to the vaults of any government with a space programme, so why would scientists hide that? You’re not going to answer that question by confirming that what we have is a rock. Still, that’s what Doug Ellison did with the video below. What makes it worth watching isn’t the conclusion but how he got there.
The tool he used in the video is the Midnight Mars Browser, which you can download on Windows or Mac for free. I didn’t know about this. It’s a tool that takes the photos from Spirit and Opportunity and displays them as virtual panoramas. You can follow in the tracks of your favourite rover. The gorilla might be dull, it’s a rock, but the tool for examining it looks brilliant. This is why the talk was so compelling. There’s masses of information about Mars you can access. You can even follow the (delayed) blog of a Mars rover driver at Mars and Me if you want the backseat driver experience.
It’s an example of debunking done well. I doubt that he’ll have converted any die-hards, because simply examining the evidence isn’t going to address their underlying problems. For everyone else he’s not only shown that it’s a not a gorilla, he’s also shown the way to more interesting places that can take our understanding of Mars further. The rest of the talk showed similar insights into the equipment on Mars and how you can use the data coming from there. As for the rest of the solar system, he runs a forum where you can find out more at unmannedspaceflight.com.
Wladimir Lyra’s following in the footsteps of Jack in his arXiv paper Naming the extrasolar planets. Currently planets are tagged after their parent star, so if we found a planet around α Ceti, it would be called α Ceti b. The b in lower case is used for the first planet to be found, c for the second and so on. a is not used to avoid confusing a planet with a star. Unfortunately in the case of some double stars a capital B would be used for the second star, so names could get confusing. So why not name the planets? Lyra gives a couple of reasons why he thinks this would be a good idea. One is that names like Bacchus are more beautiful than names like HD 128311. One person’s beauty is another person’s mess, so I’m not convinced by this. However, he also proposes that names for extrasolar planets aren’t just decorative, there’s also the Copernican principle.
“Mercury — Venus — Earth — Mars is a sequence of equals. Sol b — Sol c — Earth — Sol d would implicitly imply that the Earth is special in some way.” For this reason, Lyra argues that naming the extrasolar planets is necessary to avoid the impression that the Solar system is special. I’m more persuaded by this, but it misses an obvious point — the Solar system is special. It’s where I am, it’s where all humans are and it’s where they’ll be for the foreseeable future.
My biggest objection to his paper was that I’m not sure how helpful it would be. Even dealing with ancient historians I tend to avoid classical names for stars, except in a few cases. Vindemiatrix or Protrygetor, names for the same star in Latin or Greek aren’t as helpful as ε Virginis, because ε Virginis gives the reader a clue as to where in the sky they’ll find the star. Similarly I can see why Lyra would give the name Bellerophon to a planet, but I wouldn’t find it as helpful as 51 Pegasi b. The IAU have said there are likely to be too many extra-solar planets to name. The problem isn’t likely to be the supply of names, which is a shame as Lyra solves that neatly. It’s memorising what goes where.
For that reason I’d prefer a Bayer style system so in the ε Eridani system you could number the planets from innermost orbit to outer I, II, III and so on. It sounds simple, but it won’t work. The first star you find in a system is likely to be the most massive, not the closest to the star. Using this system you wouldn’t be able to number planets until you discovered every planet in the system. Every time you discovered a new planet you’d have to renumber the system, causing havoc when you try and use older papers for comparison which use a different numbering, or else have a database of each system’s number order for planets. Another solution would be to number planets in order of mass, but that’s not likely to be fool-proof either.
Another possibility would be a Bayer style designation which embedded information about a planet in its name. So Gliese 876 d would be Gliese 876 p1.9379, p for planet and the number following it is the orbital period. This too has flaws though as orbital periods can be calculated from assumed masses and may be revised in the future. A possible solution would be to only give names to the minimum number of significant figures necessary. In the Gliese 876 system that would give planets names p60 for b, p30 for c and p2 for d. The exact figures may change, but the relative order of periods would mean you would have a fair chance of identifying a planet named in a early paper on the system at some time in the future.
Things do change and catastrophes occur upsetting systems. Hybrid names like 55 Cancri p 5000 Argive might help track references to 55 Cancri d as papers accrue over the years. I’ll cheerfully concede a name like Althaea for planet 16 Cygni Bb (the first star discovered orbiting 16 Cygni B, hence the Bb) would be easier to understand. Ultimately though I think the problem is not the names, or their allocation. It’s what the names are used for.
The visible planets had names because they were visible, distinctive and needed names. Uranus and Neptune also got names because there were so few planets so more names were not mentally taxing. Lyra points out that asteroids have names. This is true, but when 1 Ceres and 2 Pallas were discovered it wasn’t anticipated that 2309 Mr Spock would be joining them. These days a catalogue number is essential to identify an asteroid, the name is not so important. The same can be said of comets. Originally they were named by the date they appeared. After the discovery of the periodicity of comets by Halley, they began to be named, but these days comets also bear catalogue numbers. So who will use these planet names?
A name for something that carries information about it. e.g. An example Stewart and Cohen give is if you know what an arrow and a head are, you can work out what an arrowhead is, even if you haven’t come across that word before.
For the vast majority of the extrasolar planets their existence will only be noted by astronomers, much like stars and galaxies today. While names may be beautiful, astronomers don’t seem to use them for stars, nore for many galaxies. Likewise names may add something of value to extrasolar planets, but equally use of them on a regular basis could be cumbersome. Names have most value where things are not easily categorised, like the rocks on Mars. Mythological names have the further disadvantage in that they are purely abstract rather than ontic dumps. An ontic dump would have the double use of not only labelling a planet, but giving some information about it. Bayer classifications, when used as names, are usually ontic dumps, as are the current extrasolar planet names. This matters in the Lyra name system as some of the names actually run counter to Graeco-Roman cosmology.
As an example the name Dike is associated with a planet found in Libra. In classical mythology Dike, Justice, is in fact an aspect of Virgo. Libra was originally the Claws of Scorpio. Once the method is explained then the Lyra system makes sense, but it would be counter-intuitive in some cases for anyone with a knowledge of classical mythology. Another example would be that Amphitrite, the nymph wooed by Poseidon with the aid of Delphinus is not associated with constellation Delphinus. If names are to be used then a method divorced from the mythologically laden meanings of the modern constellations might prevent confusion. That’s why I think Stuart’s suggestion to use names from all sorts of literature has a lot of merit. Though there’s something to be said for Exoplanetology’s suggestion too.
Ultimately the names for the extrasolar planets will be names that have meaning to the community of regular users. In the past classical references were common culture shared by academics in all European universities. Those days have gone. I could bemoan the decline in classics, after all I’m an ancient historian. But there’s also a lot to celebrate about the creation of academic links outside the Euro-American community. If names are adopted hopefully they’ll reflect that it’s not just the number of worlds that has grown, but also the astronomical community from a small élite at the start of the 20th century to the worldwide exchange of information and ideas that we have today.
Some posts take quite a while to write. This is a response to Candy Minx and Martin Rundkvist who were discussing the Antikythera Mechanism back in 2006 (Antikythera, Time, A Reply to the Minx). Candy Minx thought that the Antikythera Mechanism was an expression of what was already known and embedded in a society through things like myth and ritual. Martin thought that the mechanism was far more complex, indeed needlessly complex, for an ancient society and so was something quite different to the folk astronomy of the time. Originally I planned to write a fence-sitting compromise. I thought that Candy Minx was right to an extent, there was no need for a device like this because rituals and folk observation could allow people to time the year as well as they needed. At the same time I thought that Martin was right to point out that the mechanism gave results with far more accuracy than folk astronomy needed, or would even recognise. A different sort of astronomy is visible in the Antikythera Mechanism. I didn’t blog too much about the 2006 paper because I attended a few of Mike Edmunds’ talks on the topic and heard that more would be published, which happened in 2008. Anyhow in my own fluffy and fence-sitting way I’ll now offer my compromise.
Someone with an extraordinary imagination built the Antikythera Mechanism and, if he were alive today, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him a scientist. I don’t know if the designer was in the same league as Newton or Galileo, but he was certainly the equal of Kepler, Copernicus or Brahe. It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary the device described in the 2006 paper is, but I’m going to give it a go.
If you’re the one person who hasn’t heard of the Antikythera Mechanism then Nature have a handy video introduction.
All that remains now is a collection of corroded lumps found off the island of Antikythera. The 2006 paper described what the team discovered after x-raying the lumps to read the hidden inscriptions without prizing apart the device and damaging it. Prior to this paper it was thought that the device could keep track of the Sun and the Moon. This is no small feat.
Epicycle et deferent. Image by
The Sun would be moving slowly against the background stars, so over the course of a year it would pass through all the signs of the zodiac. The Moon however is more complex. The Moon also moves in front of the background stars, but it only takes about 27 days to do this. It’s called the sidereal period. So you need a couple of gears to drive those two motions. But you wouldn’t really think of the sidereal period as a month. For most people the synodic period, the time between one New Moon and the next or the time between one Full Moon and the next, is a month. This is around 29½ days. Throw in extra gears for driving other displays showing eclipse cycles and it’s clearly a complex device. The original studies found evidence of epicycles, gears mounted on other gears. Add other features like displays for eclipse and lunar cycles on the back and it’s obvious you have a complicated device. The 2006 research showed that in fact it was all a bit more complicated than that.
The Moon’s movement isn’t constant. It speeds up and slows down. This is because its orbit isn’t exactly circular. Instead it’s slightly egg-shaped. The point furthest from the earth is the apogee and the point closest to the Earth is the perigee. When it’s near the apogee it travels slowly, but when it moves closer to the Earth it picks up speed until it passes perigee and then it slows down again. This is called the first lunar anomaly. The difference is noticeable by the naked eye, if you’re willing to make systematic observations. This is all simply explained by Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. There’s small problem. Kepler used ellipses.
You can’t use elliptical gears. The point of gears is that they must have intermeshing teeth. An elliptical gear would lose contact with the driving gear as its axis changed. Instead it seems that the mechanism used two gears, one slightly off-axis from the other. The rotation was connected by a pin-and-slot arrangement, so that the one gear wouldn’t turn at quite the same rate as the other gear. The on-axis gear can then be turned reliably by the drive gears, while the motion of the moon can driven by the off-axis gear. So you have a device that can track the sidereal, synodic and anomalistic months, all while the Earth is spinning round the Sun. If that’s causing your head to spin you might want to skip the next paragraph.
There’s another problem. The lunar anomaly describes the Moon’s travel from one apogee to the next. This apogee is also rotating around the earth. If the apogee is in Aries then two and a bit years later it will be in Cancer, and another two and a bit years to move into Libra until it too has travelled through the zodiac over about nine years. So now we have a device which tracks the Moon around the Earth, and its phases and it’s variable speed and variations in that variability, while also keeping track of the Sun’s position, potential lunar and solar eclipses and intercalation cycles so you know when to stick an extra month in to keep the lunar months in step with the solar year round gears, some mounted slightly off axis to create a pseudo-sinusoidal variation using circular gears to replace ellipses. If you have funny feeling near the back of your head right now, that’s probably your brain trying to crawl out of your ears. The Antikythera Mechanism is insanely complex. Still just because it’s insanely complex, that doesn’t make it scientific.
In fact you can argue about whether or not Science existed in the ancient world. Certainly a lot of elements like testing ideas with experiments didn’t really become popular till after Galileo. On the other hand some natural philosophy of the time was based on observation. There was certainly technology which was the result of applied knowledge. With those kind of provisos a lot of ancient historians would be happy with the idea of ancient science, albeit a science different to post-Renaissance science. In this case, the sheer intense observation and calculation involved in making the Antikythera Mechanism marks it out as a work of ancient science. There’s also another factor which might make it more scientific than artistic.
To some extent the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project have been interested in hanging a name on the device. It was thought to have originated in Rhodes and sunk on its way to Rome, which would have connected it to the home city of Hipparchus, one of the great astronomers of antiquity. The 2008 paper has examined the parapegma on the mechanism and discovered it may be connected to Syracuse, home of Archimedes.
A parapegma is a calendar, usually with holes for sticking a peg into for marking the days. In the case of ancient Greece they’re interesting when they tell you what day of the month it is, because each Greek city had its own set of months. The months were usually named after religious festivals, and this was tied into local politics. That meant having your own calendar was a good way of showing your independence. The best match for the months mentioned on the mechanism is Tauromenion, modern Taormina, in Sicily. This is likely to have shared some months with Syracuse as it was re-settled from there in the fourth-century BC, so Syracuse is a strong possibility for the home of this device. Archimedes is said to have invented a planetarium according to Cicero and is thought to have written a lost book on astronomical devices. However he could not have made this device. Archimedes died in 212 BC. The Antikythera Mechanism is currently thought to date to the second half of the second century BC, but that might change. But it was very likely to have been made after Archimedes death and that’s what makes it scientific.
Art can be collaborative, or it can be personal. Science in contrast is built on cumulative knowledge. The person who invented the gearing did not have to be the person who made the astronomical observations. He didn’t even need to live in the same century as the astronomer. In fact the maker of this device might not have done either. He could have followed a kit and added his own personal touches on the casing. There’s a core to this device which, once expressed, is independent of personal vision. Archimedes didn’t have his own personal Moon which moved in a different way to everyone else’s, while an artist can have a personal interpretation of the Moon.
A reason people might think the Antikythera Mechanism is a work of art is that it’s clearly the result of a lot of imagination. Great art requires imagination, but so too does great science. It requires the kind of imagination that can look at a toolbox full of circles and see ellipses. The kind of imagination that can watch wheels turn within wheels as bodies waltz to the music of the celestial spheres. Another common factor between art and science is that great art can show a new way of looking at the world, and great science does this too. That’s why I disagree with Candy Minx when she says “Science is always playing catch up with the poets.” Science can reveal beauty too, as a visit to the Antikythera Mechanism Research Group’s homepage would show.
Freeth, T., Bitsakis, Y., Moussas, X., Seiradakis, J., Tselikas, A., Mangou, H., Zafeiropoulou, M., Hadland, R., Bate, D., Ramsey, A., Allen, M., Crawley, A., Hockley, P., Malzbender, T., Gelb, D., Ambrisco, W., & Edmunds, M. (2006). Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism Nature, 444 (7119), 587–591 DOI: 10.1038/nature05357
Freeth, T., Jones, A., Steele, J., & Bitsakis, Y. (2008). Calendars with Olympiad display and eclipse prediction on the Antikythera Mechanism Nature, 454 (7204), 614–617 DOI: 10.1038/nature07130
This is (what I hope is) the final version of the Delphi presentation. It briefly covers the ground that formed the basis for Knowing when to consult the oracle at Delphi. There’s more unpublished material, but rather than trying to produce Delphi II, I’m going to make it part of the forthcoming Calendrical Calibration paper.
It’s a common gripe that archaeologists don’t have much interest in public archaeology. I’m not convinced it’s true and it’s certainly not true of archaeoastronomy. People and the Sky is Anthony Aveni’s latest (original) book. He’s the most prolific of the popular archaeoastronomy authors, so it’s no surprise his prose is pretty well polished. I like this book, and if you don’t have any by him it’s well worth buying. If you’ve Stairways to the Stars, his earlier archaeoastronomy overview then I’m not so sure.
I’ve been thinking about whether the World Archaeoastronomy approach works. Anthony Aveni’s work would be an argument in its favour. While he’s best known for his work in Mesoamerica, he’s also done original research in the Mediterranean and the southwestern USA. One of the reasons he can do this without being trivial is that he’s interesting in how to relate astronomy to archaeology and vice versa. Wherever it is you’re studying in the world, there’s the problem of tying the global perspective of astronomy to archaeology, which is always local. People and the Sky could be said to be a collection of a dozen ways of trying to solve that problem.
The introduction starts by saying why the sky was important in the ancient world. It’s brief and rapidly turns into a paragraph on each chapter. Anyone who’s bought the book is presumably already sold on the idea that the sky was important, so brevity is not an issue. The opening chapter The Storyteller’s Sky introduces the role of the sky in ancient cosmologies. This section is heavily biased to the New World, with Mayans, Aztecs and the Navajo and the Babylonians from the Old World. The selection reflects Aveni’s expertise. The next chapter, Patterns in the Sky, opens with a personal anecdote, but the range of sources is much greater. Here Aveni’s world archaeoastronomy approach works to show the diversity of patterns seen in the night sky. As well as the Babylonians and Mayans, he also throws in many more cultures including the Egyptians, Barasana of the Amazon and the Incas. This last group is interesting because for them the patterns in the sky include spaces where the stars aren’t visible. In the Milky Way dark nebulae blot out stars, making distinctive silhouettes which the Inca recognised.
The Sailor’s Sky descibes one of my favourite artefacts, Polynesian stone canoes. They sound like something out of the Flintstones, but they’re better described as simulators. A novice naviagator would sit by the stones looking out at the horizon learning which stars rise over it. With this knowledge he’d be able to navigate across the vast distances of the Pacific ocean. There’s some discussion of Inuit navigation, but this is mainly a Polynesian chapter.
The Hunter’s Sky includes and handy guide on how to tell the time using the Plough, assuming there’s no clouds over it and you’ve forgotten your watch. This draws on Plains Indians, the G/wi of Botswana, the Mursi and Stonehenge. The inclusion of Stonehenge here is interesting. It’s a Neolithic monument, and that’s usually associated with farming. Aveni argues that Britons were semi-nomadic in this period. It’s plausible, archaeological evidence is suggesting there was plenty of movement in the landscape through to the Early Bronze Age, so seasonal use of megalithic sites would make sense.
It’s the next chapter that tackles the Farmer’s Sky. He opens by discussing Works and Days by Hesiod, which he dates to the ninth-century BC. That seems a bit early to me, I would have said it was written at a hundred years later. However, I would agree that the integration of astronomical and ecological imagery in the poem is important and points to an extensive knowledge of the sky. He uses the word ‘systematic’ to describe the astronomy, but I’d be wary of saying there was a system as such. He moves on to Rujm el-Hiri, a site which I haven’t read much about after hearing it called “the Stonehenge of the Levant”. If I hear anything is called “the Stonehenge of anywhere that isn’t Stonehenge” then I become wary. Thankfully Aveni’s explanation isn’t an attempt to shoehorn a Stonehenge model onto a site, but I’ll have to read the relevant articles before I’m convinced of some of the claims. He also describes Indonesian rice farming using bamboo as a sighting tool, which was entirely new to me.
The later chapters move more towards ideology. The House, the Family and the Sky is about the organisation of domestic space, based on cosmological principles. The Navajo, Pawnee and the various tribes of the Orinoco make up much of this chapter but he also mentions the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo and Gilbert Islanders, before moving back the the Americas with the Inca. This may be one of the bigger growth areas in archaeoastronomy in the coming decades as it deals with the kind of things people do without thinking. This connects the sky with terrestrial order.
This is expanded on in The City and the Sky. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan makes an appearance, not surprisingly as Aveni has done a lot of work on pecked cross circles there. He’s also looked at the Etruscan basis for town planning, and this can be found here too. He also talks about another obvious example of celestial planning, Beijing, and the astronomical records of the Chin Shu dynasty (3rd century AD). This use of power leads neatly onto The Ruler’s Sky. The Powhatan attacks on Virginia led by Opechancanough add an interesting alternative viewpoint to the Mayan and Babylonian uses of astronomy and astrology elsewhere in the chapter. China and Babylon form the basis of the following chapter The Astrologer’s Sky, though there is also a discussion of Cheyenne shamanism and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of India.
The Timekeeper’s Sky concentrates on just two cultures, the Romans and the Mayans. I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed about that. I find the Greek calendar cheerfully chaotic and worth looking at in its own right. On the other hand I’m willing to bet that if Aveni had done that, he would have come across some of the same curiosities I have. So while I’d say there’s a gap here, it’s not one I’m actually complaining about. To some extent this chapter covers similar material to the earlier hunting and farming chapters.
The final chapter of the book is The Western Sky. It’s a slightly different chapter to the others. It asks an obvious question. Given the existence of so many astronomies, why has one come to dominate science? This why question is re-visited in the Epilogue which Aveni uses to reiterate that for many people Astronomy had been something very different both in methods and aims to the modern science it is day.
As a whole, the book shows some of the limitations of a world archaeoastronomy approach. I didn’t see anything substanstial about India in the book. References to China were limited and there was nothing of Korea or Japan that I saw. To a large extent this reflects fault-lines in academia. A lot of far eastern material isn’t published in western languages. That’s not really true for India though. There’s some extremely good archaeology happening there and a large amount of historical material, including astrological texts. It works for textbooks introducing the subject, but I am wondering to what extent a World Archaeoastronomy approach can be used in research publications.
Compared with his other works, this is definitely at the shallow end but it’s not fair to dismiss it as shallow. Like the best introductory texts it leads on to other material. For instance I’ll be looking up more about Rujm el-Hiri now. If you’re looking to buy a book and you have Stairways to the Stars, then this is one to get out of the library. If you don’t have Stairways to the Stars, then this would be the better book to buy.
Can you spot the Moon in this photo? Photo (cc) Andréia.
One of the reasons I’m putting up more stuff recently is that it’s a spin-off from polishing the thesis. Reasonable questions would be: What do is Social Astronomy? and Why is that Archaeoastronomy and not History of Astronomy? The answers to both questions are connected.
Social Astronomy is the study of astronomy as used for social purposes. This fits very neatly with Archaeoastronomy which these days tends also to be referred to as Cultural Astronomy. In contrast History of Astronomy, especially in the ancient world, has tended to be the story of how Astronomy in its modern sense grew from ancient practices. An example of very good History of Astronomy in an ancient context would be James Evans’s book The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. It’s a very good book covering the mathematical basis ancient astronomy and how people got progressively more accurate at predicting the movement of the planets. I think that’s going to be a defining work on ancient astronomy for a generation, but there’s still things it misses. The quest for accuracy is the underlying narrative of a lot of ancient astronomy books. It misses the factor that people, especially the ancient Greeks, might have also wanted and aimed for inaccurate astronomy. That is an odd claim, after all isn’t astronomy a science? Continue reading →
There’s a couple of problems with this. One is that the written sources aren’t the philosophers themselves. They’re later records of what other philosophers thought they said. Or what later philosophers wanted other people to think they said. There’s a question of where they got their information from. They certainly could have had access to the original writings. That might have been difficult for Pythagoras though, who was head of something like a secret society. The best sources on Pythagoras we have are from the 3rd century AD, about a eight centuries after he lived. There was also a habit in the ancient world of sticking an older philsopher’s name on your book. Like today old wisdom was often much more respected than new.
Another reason to be sceptical is that these were philosophers. They were at the cutting edge of thought, which doesn’t mean that hicks in the fields would have been up-to-date with cosmological thought, or believed it. For example Pythagoras’ idea of a round earth would be considered dangerously modern in some parts of Texas. Don “Someone has to stand up to the experts” McLeroy prefers an older text for his thought. Likewise what would your less-educated ancient Greek think? Continue reading →
It’s something astronomers do from time to time, point at others and claim that’s not real astronomy. I remember, when CCDs were starting to be adopted for astrophotos, old hands would disparage their digitally enhanced neighbours. For some reason a chemical process prone to noise and mistakes in a hobby photo lab was more real that non-destructive manipulation of digital data. It begs the question what do you think is real?
If there is a divide, it’s between naked eye astronomy and everything else rather than between one telescope use and another. Otherwise the line is pretty arbitrary. Are you only a real astronomer if you polish your own mirrors and grind your own lenses? Is it the length of cable between your telescope and computer? I’ll accept that observing via Slooh and your own telescope is different, but it’s no less real. After all there isn’t a professional astronomer actually in the Hubble telescope with his fingers on the focus, yet that doesn’t stop academics being real astronomers.
It depends on what it is you want to acheive when you’re doing astronomy. If you want to make discoveries, which seems pretty real to me, then technological aids help. If that’s an aid on the other side of the world, or downloading information from ESA, then so be it. If you want to practice astronomy in the way that most observers of the sky have, then it’s naked eyes that you need. In some ways you could even say it’s more real. Astronomy, as far as the naming of the stars went, was done by the naked eye. It’s only with a wide view that the patterns of the constellations can be seen. Despite that using more than your eyes is can augment what we see rather than rob of us of it. Remote scopes offer a chance anyone to visit a dark sky site and see more of the universe on any given night regardless of family commitments or health issues.
I’m not sure why you’d want to draw a line though. Astronomy, like a lot of things, is more interesting when you can use it as a base to explore from, rather than a box to be confined in.