Coordinating Celestial Observations

Published 6-27-2018

To introduce astronomy studies to my former students, I regaled them with an account of my early childhood musings about the the Earth and the sky. Some confessed similar youthful personal misconceptions about the cosmos.

As a young child I gazed out and envisioned a solid dome of sky arching down to Earth and meeting the solid ground “out there” at some distant point on the horizon. I wondered what would it be like to be “out there.” I don’t recall wondering about the juncture as I looked across Lake Ontario or the ocean. Neither do I recollect noticing that stars on the solid sky dome were positioned on the night sky in a consistent arrangement from night to night and that certain bodies such as the sun and moon were superimposed on the star field and always slid across the dome from east to west. I was far too young for such a detailed analysis. My understanding of the Earth/sky relationship was quite preliminary. Immediate observation predominated.

The prehistoric Sumerians also had concept of a solid dome stretching across the sky—part of a three tiered (sometimes seven-tiered) concept of the heavens. Earth was perceived to be a flat disc under the dome. There was no concept of Earth as a sphere suspended in space. The tiered, domed concept was embellished with many imaginative beliefs as was their complex polytheism. One wonders about their everyday experiences in a physical world not unlike our own.

Against the background of our knowledge of ancient prehistoric mysticism, polytheism, and superstition, a strange irony springs forth with respect to how we currently plot celestial coordinates. With what system do we communicate information concerning positions of heavenly bodies in our vast heavens? The irony is this: The heavens surrounding Planet Earth do not really consist of a solid dome surrounding the Earth, but we use this faulty worldview scheme for teaching celestial coordinates in modern classrooms—a map of the heavens used to precisely describe the location of countless thousands of heavenly bodies. Alan MacRobert of Sky and Telescope magazine wrote in the 7/20/06 issue that, “In astronomy, appearances and reality are more different than in any other area of human experience.” In humorous, simpler terms, seeing is not always believing when we look at the sky: The sky looks like it is a solid dome over our head, but it really isn’t.

It slowly dawned on early astronomers that our Earth seems not to be encircled by a “dome,” but rather, a complete celestial sphere. What a startling revelation that was! They noticed that part of the sky dome was always setting in the west; another part was always rising in the east. Therefore, at any time, half of the celestial sphere must be below the horizon. We do not live on a flat Earth surrounded by a dome; rather, we live on a spherical Earth.

What happened on that dome has been historically subject to much interpretation and misinterpretation. Later believers thought the “dome” which encircled our planet carried with it certain objects such as stars, the Moon, and the Sun. As a result, we experience direct light from the Sun and the reflected light from the Moon, but there was still room for misunderstanding of reality.

So what is the “dome” conceived by early Mesopotamian astronomers? It was the backdrop for wonderful manifestations of visual observations. What were they? They were images of the Sun, Moon, and various planets which crept across the sky. Our children and grandchildren still observe the Sun as it treks across the sky and sets in the west. They also observe the Moon in its relentless travels. Less careful observers may notice the trek of the stars. We acknowledge that people from every age have been challenged to identify profoundly non-obvious causes in relation to powerfully impactful obvious effects.

The scientist Ptolemy who died in 168 A.D. established the Ptolemaic cosmological system. We live on a spherical planet, said Ptolemy, but the planet did not move. Various objects moved around us. We were part of a geocentric (Earth-centered) system. The celestial sphere was host to complex movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars emplaced in many spherical layers. The idea of a solid dome was gone.

Copernicus (1473-1543) supplied clarity. Aristarchus (310-230 B.C) had pre-stated Copernicus’ ideas by many hundreds of years. Copernicus, however, acquired modern credit for his heliocentric cosmology. Already established by Ptolemy was the idea of a spherical Earth in space with the Earth at the center of the universe. Now Copernicus amazed church leaders by claiming the Sun was at the center of the known universe with the planets revolving around it, placing Earth in a subordinate position. Some leaders were thrilled at the new knowledge while others felt this was anti-biblical. Over one hundred years later, Galileo was ostracized for endorsing Copernican cosmology. He was not officially vindicated by the Catholic Church until 1992.

This brief account of the evolution of cosmology does little justice to the intense struggles of scientists and church authorities to arrive at truth based on a blend of accurate modern science and divinely inspired Biblical orthodoxy.

Recently our pastor began a series on the Psalms. Could there be a more propitious launch of a sermon series than Psalm 8? It begins, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” (Psalm 8:1) This Psalm places the glory of God above the heavens but God also reserves a measure of glory for man created in His own image: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5)

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