My favorite part of this unit was learning about the developments throughout history made in the field of astronomy. I had heard of famous names such as Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo, but had not really learned about them to understand what their contributions were. I learned throughout this unit that around Copernicus’ time, people had begun to notice that the Ptolemaic model was inaccurate, but no one was willing to take on the challenging calculations required to improve the model. Copernicus was brave enough to give it a try. He built upon Aristarchus’s Sun-centered proposition of the solar system, and discovered that it provided a much simpler explanation for retrograde motion. He took the model a step further by calculating the orbital period of each planet and its relative distance from the Sun. Something that amazed me was that Copernicus was conflicted about whether or not to publish his findings in fear that they would be seen as crazy, but eventually decided to. He published his first copy of his book on the same day he died. If he had died a day earlier, his findings may not have been put out into the world, and maybe we would have had to wait many more years for someone to find out that the solar system is heliocentric.
Tycho Brahe apparently lost part of his nose in a sword fight against a fellow student to determine who was the better mathematician. That didn’t stop him from discovering ground-breaking new observations from the naked-eye. He designed himself a new nose made of silver and gold, and went on his way! He is most famous for discovering a nova, meaning “new star.” I was fascinated to find out that Johannes Kepler was actually Brahe’s apprentice! He continued Brahe’s work and came up with the laws of motion. His biggest discovery was that the planets orbit in ellipses, not circles. His laws matched Brahe’s data, while also providing evidence in favor of Copernican heliocentrism. Galileo came along after these fellas and answered any remaining doubts people had about the universe. Some of his most important data was about stellar parallax, which was an idea unheard of at the time. Galileo’s belief in these new ideas was not well accepted at his time. The Catholic Church believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and ordered Galileo to go in front of the Church inquisition in Rome and take back his comments that the Earth orbited the Sun. However, it is said that as he agreed with the church, he whispered under his breath, “And yet it moves” in Italian.
Learning about these people was very interesting because I learned about more than just their discoveries, but also their lives. I didn’t know that Copernicus only published his work the day he died, or that Brahe lost part of his nose, or that Kepler was Brahe’s assistant and they had a very strained relationship. It was cool to see these people as regular human beings, and not just crazy smart people with crazy cool discoveries. All of their discoveries required courage, patience, and persistence, and it is inspiring to hear about how they took on the hard challenges that no one else wanted to face.