“Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.”
This past weekend I had the honor of attending a friend’s wedding set in the hill country outside of Boerne, Texas. I had been in town since the Friday afternoon prior to the wedding for the rehearsal dinner and was lucky to spend some time with the groom on his soon-to-be wife’s porch that evening. In the country, particularly at dusk as the sun sinks beyond the horizon, there is a calm that covers the landscape like a blanket. You are inclined to soften your voice and observe the transformation happening around you.
As we sat in rocking chairs, discussing the excitement in both of our hearts for their future, I noticed something that often goes missing in the city–the stars. For the Greeks, love is often comedic or tragic, but it can also be faithful, hopeful, and pure. For us, examples of both are set in constellations.
The Western understanding of constellations originates with the Greeks, but the Babylonian-Sumerian civilizations were astronomers before. Though the Greek names are most familiar to us, the idea of a constellation, “a group of stars forming a recognizable pattern that is traditionally named after its apparent form or identified with a mythological figure,” also existed in ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt.
Andromeda and Perseus are two such Greek constellations that are surrounded in myth and love. As Perseus returns from slaying the Gorgon Medusa, at the behest of Polydectes, he spies the beautiful Andromeda chained to a rock on the cliffside. Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, had bragged about her daughter’s beauty to Poseidon and then was forced to offer her as a sacrifice to Cetus, a sea monster and Poseidon’s son.
Struck by her beauty, Perseus slays Cetus and frees his new-found bride. Their story is immortalized by the two nearby constellations named for them.
By studying the constellations, we can understand how ancient civilizations viewed their relationship with the divine, but astronomy also has a far more practical purpose. America’s founding fathers emphasized the importance of exploring the celestial bodies for meteorological reasons. Benjamin Franklin observed the night sky to better predict the changing of seasons.
Thomas Jefferson’s fascination began when he witnessed a lunar eclipse during the Revolutionary War. Decades later, he had a beautiful clock made by Thomas Voigt of Philadelphia. The inside of the clock case was marked so that–like the Great Clock prominently displayed in the Entrance Hall of Monticello still today–the single weight would keep track of the passage of time as it fell.
Nearly a century later in 1897, astronomer George Ellery Hale, with the financing by Charles T. Yerkes and architectural expertise of Henry Ives Cobb, founded the Yerkes Observatory. “The birthplace of modern astrophysics,” the observatory is located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin and operated by the University of Chicago. Here, observatories evolved from merely housing telescopes to accommodating physics and chemistry experiments and equipment. The telescope there, constructed by Alvan Clark and Sons, remains the largest refracting telescope ever made, and it boasts a 40″ lens.
To be continued…