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2.1 The Sky Above

The direct evidence of our senses supports a geocentric perspective, with the celestial sphere pivoting on the celestial poles and rotating about a stationary Earth. We see only half of this sphere at one time, limited by the horizon; the point directly overhead is our zenith. The Sun’s annual path on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic—a line that runs through the center of the zodiac, which is the 18-degree-wide strip of the sky within which we always find the Moon and planets. The celestial sphere is organized into 88 constellations, or sectors.

2.2 Ancient Astronomy

Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle recognized that Earth and the Moon are spheres, and understood the phases of the Moon, but because of their inability to detect stellar parallax, they rejected the idea that Earth moves. Eratosthenes measured the size of Earth with surprising precision. Hipparchus carried out many astronomical observations, making a star catalog, defining the system of stellar magnitudes, and discovering precession from the apparent shift in the position of the north celestial pole. Ptolemy of Alexandria summarized classic astronomy in his Almagest; he explained planetary motions, including retrograde motion, with remarkably good accuracy using a model centered on Earth. This geocentric model, based on combinations of uniform circular motion using epicycles, was accepted as authority for more than a thousand years.

2.3 Astrology and Astronomy

The ancient religion of astrology, with its main contribution to civilization a heightened interest in the heavens, began in Babylonia. It reached its peak in the Greco-Roman world, especially as recorded in the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy. Natal astrology is based on the assumption that the positions of the planets at the time of our birth, as described by a horoscope, determine our future. However, modern tests clearly show that there is no evidence for this, even in a broad statistical sense, and there is no verifiable theory to explain what might cause such an astrological influence.

2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy

Nicolaus Copernicus introduced the heliocentric cosmology to Renaissance Europe in his book De Revolutionibus. Although he retained the Aristotelian idea of uniform circular motion, Copernicus suggested that Earth is a planet and that the planets all circle about the Sun, dethroning Earth from its position at the center of the universe. Galileo was the father of both modern experimental physics and telescopic astronomy. He studied the acceleration of moving objects and, in 1610, began telescopic observations, discovering the nature of the Milky Way, the large-scale features of the Moon, the phases of Venus, and four moons of Jupiter. Although he was accused of heresy for his support of heliocentric cosmology, Galileo is credited with observations and brilliant writings that convinced most of his scientific contemporaries of the reality of the Copernican theory.

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