The Unexplained Motions of the Heavens

In This Chapter

V How does celestial movement mark time?

V The discrepancy between the solar and sidereal day—and what it means

V The sidereal month versus the synodic month

V Understanding the tropical year and the sidereal year

V The reason for seasons

V The solar system according to Ptolemy

The next time you're outside doing yard work in the sun, put a stick in the ground, call it a gnomon, and watch the motion of its shadow. Believe it or not, you have made a simple sundial, which was one of the earliest ways that human beings kept track of time. In fact, keeping time was one of the two major reasons that early civilizations kept a close watch on the skies. The other reason, of course, was to use the motions of the planets through the constellations to predict the future for the benefit of kings and queens and empires. Well, the first practice (keeping track of time) has continued to this day. The U.S. Naval Observatory is charged with being the timekeeper for the nation, using technology a bit more advanced than a stick in the ground. The second practice (predicting the future) is also alive and well, but astronomers have turned those duties over to The Psychic Network™—at least for the time being.

In the days before movies, television, video games, and the Internet, the starry sky (untouched by city lights and automobile exhaust) was truly the greatest show on Earth. Generations of sky watchers looked and imagined and sought to explain. Common sense told many of these early watchers that they were on a kind of platform overarched by a rotating bowl or sphere that held the stars. We have seen that in various cultures, other explanations surfaced from time to time.

It doesn't matter right now whether these explanations were right or wrong (well, many of them were wrong). What matters is that the explanations were, to many astronomers, unsatisfying. None of the explanations could account for everything that happened in the sky. For example, if the stars were all fixed in this overarching bowl, how did the planets break free to wander among the stars? And they didn't wander randomly. The planets were only found in certain regions of the sky, close to the great circle on the sky called the ecliptic. Why was that? The sky is filled with thousands of bright points of light that move, and none of the ancient explanations adequately explained all of these movements.

In this chapter, we examine the sky in motion and how early astronomers came to be the keepers of the clock.

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