The science of astronomy is as multidisciplined as the ideologies contained within. It is a derivation and compilation of earlier sets of principles such as religion, natural philosophy, physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. While some components such as these are not , and have never until recently, traditionally interpreted as “science,” in Newtonian terms to say the least, what they have subsequently imparted is, in fact, invaluable. Without the efforts of earlier thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, or Galileo, the proverbial walls of astronomy would most assuredly never be as sound and solid as they are today. The following is a brief look and examination into this very premise looking at the various disciplines within the field of astronomy as well as elements that brought them about.
Suffice to say, astronomy is a field of study that has been around for centuries. Every culture from the beginning of recorded history has endeavored to serve as its adherents in one form or another. From the Neolithic Godseck Circle, to Ptolemy's Almagest, Copernicus' heliocentric model, and even Newton's laws of motion, it is a human endeavor that has looked to the stars and will invariably continue to do so in the future. Even now, remnants of earlier astronomical scientific inquiry resonate. They may eventually translate to even more evolved forms of astronomy even still. Because of astronomy's multifaceted influences over the years, it is not just the product of one single discipline, but many. Astronomy incorporates elements into it such as archeology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and even geology. These disciplines have been instrumental in birthing new sets of inquiries such as archeoastronomy, new revelations in astrophysics, astrochemistry, and even astrogeology, for example. To thoroughly investigate the science of astronomy, it is prudent to review it from, not a static examination, but a multi-perspective. In these terms, it is first relevant to see how the vision and scope of astronomy originated, and then how it transitioned over time, as well. While components of astronomy may not always have been characterized as “sciences” from era to era, what they lend to is relevant and equally deserving of consideration. Without those primarily neolithic, or earlier modern influences, astronomy would never be the endeavor it is now. Further, as the course of astronomy dynamically evolves, so does the kinds of sciences and disciplines that constitute it. The field has seemingly grown to such an extent it has virtually broken through the bonds of what once incorporated it. The future of astronomy is seemingly no longer the stuff of its infancy.
Archeoastronomy is a relatively new field that incorporates both, of course, astronomy and methodologies of the humanities and the social sciences, primarily, archeology and those particular subbranches of study or sets of inquiry. It is an effort that has expanded the current understanding of how concepts of astronomy and corresponding disciplines first originated. It works in a similar manner to traditional astronomy. It serves to a) observe and assess; however, archeoastronomers concentrate more on concerns relevant about ancient culture's relationship to the stars and tools they used to better understand celestial relationships and; b) record; proponents of this field study how cultures past endeavored to keep records of cosmological activity for agricultural use or posterity. Of course, this field is typically not as exacting as modern-day astronomy. Although it does attempts to better understand questions of astronomy and the universe. For example, the concept of solar positioning may have arguably been brought about well before the advent of the Scientific Revolution or before such iconic figures as Copernicus, too. Ancient sites, celestial observatories or even astronomical structures such as Newgrange, that date back as far back as 3,000 B.C. speak to this premise. Current research from astronomer Clive Ruggles of the University of Leicester suggests ancient astronomers planned, designed, and constructed solar temples with the understanding that “ancient peoples recognized that the Sun's rising and setting points vary over an annual cycle” (Ruggles, 2005). These events invariably led to more complex ideas in astronomy such as “obliquity of the eliptic” (Ruggles, 2005). This particular concept is intricate as it is one that primarily deals with angles and measurements of the Earth's axial tilt and its relationship with other spheres. In concert with this, his research indicates ancient people were very aware of how the planets moved, at least in terms of their solar system.
According to the British researcher, there “are obvious solar and lunar associations with such constructions as Stonehenge.” Additionally, not only did ancient people have a clear understanding of their relationship to the celestial world around them, site evidence suggests they understood how elemental substances (earth, air, fire, and water, for example) in their own world worked, as well. Constructing sites such as Newgrange or Stonehenge, and the host of other sites around the globe took incredible precision, time, and intricate knowledge of the environment. Stonehenge, according to research, may have been created with a very strategic latitude in mind and took centuries to complete entirely; however, this structure is, by no means, an anomaly. Artifacts found at such similar sites as Egypt's Karnak, Germany's Godseck circle, and even Ireland's Newgrange tomb, all indicate heightened awareness and also demonstrate both an intimate and advanced knowledge of the world which many archeoastronomers believe has been lost. While this is in no way to suggest they enacted the modern scientific method in any modern sense, their contributions gave rise to a host of disciplines such as metallurgy, alchemy, natural philosophy, and even ancient geology; an ancient ideal which concerned itself with the physical origins of the Earth.
Astrophysics is a branch of science that concerns itself with the inner workings (and outer depending on how you look at the universe) of the physical universe and the forces that drive it. It is a practice that is as old as astronomy itself originating from concepts of natural philosophy from astronomers such as Galileo Galilei; setting himself a bit apart from natural philosophers, he was the first to essentially outline what would eventually the laws of motion. Before Galileo, however, natural philosophers such as Aristotle believed material in the celestial spheres didn't change and remained ever-constant.
It really wasn't until Issac Newton that scientists started to realize both the Earth and the planets of our solar system had a lot more in common than ancient Greek or 17th-century paradigms maintained. Both Galileo and Newton were two important progenitors of astronomy and modern astrophysics. It wouldn't be until after the advent of spectroscopy that more complex tools and devices could actually help scientists see and measure what Galileo or Newton only talked about previously. The spectroheliograph allowed the researcher to observe the Sun; this device enabled a host of other innovations that would allow the science of astronomy and subsequently astrophysics to seemingly expand exponentially. The study molecular astrophysics, in particular, is a field of astronomy that even now uses spectroscopy to examine and record events in space. It often also works in concert with multiple fields such as chemistry and even geology, too. Various other disciplines and subbranches of it include theoretical, computational, observational, radio, infrared, and even optical astronomy.
Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford are three American universities at the forefront of astrophysics research. All three colleges, in concert with other entities such as the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics, specialize in research areas such as computational, theoretical and instrumental, and cosmological approaches to the field of astrophysics. Computational astrophysics, for example, is an area that strongly utilizes mathematics in theoretical astronomy. This particular field works in terms of algorithms that help express the universe in the abstract, i.e., you cannot be in a black hole, for example, but you can first observe an event, then theorize about it. Additionally, much of this field has to do with expressing the multiplicity of terms of physical processes such as fluid or hydrodynamics; in terms of astrophysics, a study of how interstellar gases move or form. The study of movement or development of interstellar gases is relevant in terms of the solar system, for example, because it helps shows the interrelationship between itself, gravity, planets, and stars; which are mainly comprised of gases, too. For example, as the material in the universe is now characterized more similar than dissimilar, it is paramount to observe and record how something like the Sun, which is largely comprised of gases, behaves. In this, astrophysics and hydrodynamics (among others) use math to theorizes from observable data. It is, of course, important to observe and measure the Sun as is entirely sustains life, not for only our planet, but for the entire galaxy, as well. The science of cosmology is a branch of theoretical astronomy that expands on what exactly to do with the observable information once it is obtained and what it may actually mean; this field focuses on the question of how the universe was first formed and what will happen to it.
Now while astrophysics concentrates on how to answer questions regarding how the forces in the universe work, there are other facets of astronomy that work to know what precisely is the stuff of the universe comprised of? If the stuff of celestial space is the same as terrestrial space, what does that mean about how the universe was first formed and where it is going?
The material that comprises the universe is every bit as important as what drives it. Astrochemistry is a field of science that concerns itself with just this. Reported to originate sometime around the 1950s, astrochemistry is a compilation of astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Much to its name, this field uses the disciplines of astronomy in concert with such disciplines as cosmochemistry or molecular chemistry to study the composition of matter in space. Radio telescopes, allow astrochemists to observe matter. Since they cannot physically obtain data from huge distances away, scientists gather information from telescopes and radio frequencies. They can observe and record how molecules behave and from this, they may extrapolate how or why one set of material is, for example, heavier than another. Using computational mathematics, theories of astrophysics, astrochemists may derive information about how something such as carbon molecules seemingly appears in a huge percent of material across the galaxy. Comets and corresponding gases, interstellar clouds, meteorites, and other substances that appear in space all seemingly contain carbon molecules; material that was possibly formed only after the Big Bang. This may be hugely significant given the presumed interrelationship between the Earth, the Solar System and the outer bodies, and galaxies. It is also significant in terms of theoretical astrochemistry, as well. The concept of stardust grains, for example, theorizes that if material all over the universe is comprised of like stuff, it isn't too far off base to assume it came from the same stellar source. Presolar stardust grains are also thought to have originated, as to its name, before the birth of the Sun. This doesn't mean they didn't come from another star somewhere far away before our solar system was formed millions or even potentially billions of years ago. Materials such as diamond, carbide, and nitride all have appeared within certain types of interstellar meteorites.
While astrochemists use their considerable training, tools, and skills to observe and record the chemical composition of this universe, a layperson may simply want to know: “who cares?” First, the relevance of astrochemistry is hugely important to obtaining knowledge about our solar system, i.e., what it's made of or how it works. The events scientists observe may mirror events of millions of years ago. Mainly, if science can understand how the material in the universe is born or even evolves from one time to another, from then and now, then it is safe to say, they could possibly surmise where this evolution will ultimately lead.
Cosmochemistry is a field that centralizes its focus on the chemistry of the universe and how that chemistry relates to the beginning of time and how it has potentially changed into the universe that exists now. It mainly orients around the idea of primordial matter. This matter could be best characterized as universal first “bits” from which all subsequent matter was born. The cosmological premise goes that some kind of huge interaction between primordial gases, for example, occurred billions of years ago. Significant celestial activity during this period generated an explosion and this primordial matter changed; matter mixed with gases and caused an explosion which led to new evolutions of matter. Hugely powerful and distant quasars may be evidence or good indicators of this kind of activity. Using optical telescopes, scientists have been able to observe faint primordial matter such as hydrogen that, up until recently, researchers could only theorize about. This is relevant as many believe our own solar system and additional galaxies were essentially formulated by powerful exchanges of energy, gases, and primordial matter such as hydrogen and carbon.
Integrating astronomy and physics, chemistry, and geology, astrogeology is a relatively new field of astronomy that works to examine the composition of rock material and forces that enact themselves upon them. Much like astrophysics or astrochemistry, it also concerns itself with processes and evidence of how those processes relate to our own planet and others. For example, astrominerology is a branch of astrogeology that focuses on the chemistry of how minerals are formed. Thought to have originated with Eugene Shoemaker in 1961, this field utilizes within it multiple fields of science that have helped researchers understand how entire regions or planetary surface environments are ultimately formed. Shoemaker, a former member of the U.S. Geological Survey, was a prize-winning geologist. He fused chemistry and astronomy with geology; an endeavor that ultimately led to discoveries on the moon, Mars, and even Jupiter.
Astrobiology is a multifaceted field that is about as old as astronomy itself. It is a science which endeavors to show the relationship between all biological life everywhere in the universe. Unlike ancient Greeks such as Aristotle, other natural philosophers didn't think the universe was so static and constant. Metrodorus of Chios, (an ancient Greek who lived about 100 years later), said: “it is unnatural in a large field to have only one shaft of wheat, and in an infinite Universe, only one world” (Mansfield, 2001). Also known as “exobiology,” it works to develop ideas using organic and biochemistry, astrogeology, astrophysics and a host of others to find out about how life was born or lived millions of years ago and what this also relates to our own galaxy. For example, scientists from this field of study often examine the idea that if life could arise on Earth, it is feasible it could have existed elsewhere or could even still exist now. Astrobiologists also, not only try to ascertain the status of life elsewhere, but they also ask whether or not life could be sustained on other planets, as well.
Whether through archeoastronomy, astrophysics, astrochemistry, astrogeology, or even astrobiology, the future of astronomy is a strong one. Future research, coupled with new technologies will invariably generate a host of innovation that will bring about new discoveries and further, even more dynamic disciplines. Discoveries they will most likely elicit will undoubtedly lead to more questions scientists will endeavor to pursue. Eventually, they may ultimately find the answers they are looking for in the end.
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