Astronomers will always have a special place in the history and development of science. Back when people were first starting to pay attention to what could be up in our skies, astronomers were the ones that made observations, calculations, and records that helped people understand the universe a little better. From Eratosthenes to Carl Sagan, astronomers have been discovering more and more things about our skies and the objects beyond them.
We all know the more famous astronomers—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton—but there are numerous others who have made significant contributions to astronomy as well. They may not be as well-known, but they definitely deserve more recognition.
An Albrecht Durer woodcut featuring al-Sufi from 1515
Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, known in the West as Azophi or Azophi Arabus, was a Persian astronomer who lived in the 10th century. He translated and expanded on Greek astronomical works, notably making corrections on Greek astronomer Ptolemy's list of stars.
Al-Sufi was also the first to detect and record the existence of another galaxy aside from the Milky Way. He described what saw as a “small cloud”, and this other galaxy turned out to be Andromeda.
Among other things, al-Sufi also created charts of the heavens based on his own observations, and also wrote a book called “Kitab al-Kawatib al-Thabit al-Musawwar”.
Spacecraft Cassini, which is set to take its swan dive into Saturn on September 15, was named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. Most notably, Cassini discovered four of Saturn's moons as well as the gap in the planet's rings. NASA fittingly named the spacecraft that orbits Saturn and its moon after Cassini.
Cassini taught astronomy at the University of Bologna and served as director of the Paris Observatory. He was also the first to discover differential rotation in Jupiter's atmosphere, as well as the first to correctly explain what zodiacal lights were.
A painting of William Herschel by Lemuel Francis Abbott
British astronomer William Herschel shot to stardom almost overnight when he made an important discovery. Herschel had been spending years observing the stars, and on March 13, 1781, he spied what he thought was a star or comet in the sky. However, as it turned out, Herschel discovered Uranus, the first planet to be discovered since ancient times.
He also discovered two of Uranus's moons, as well as two more of Saturn's. Additionally, Herschel worked out that Mars's polar ice caps changed with the seasons, and he also pioneered the use of spectrophotometry to measure the wavelength distribution of the stars.
Photo via the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
We don't hear of many women in astronomy, but American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt is certainly worthy of our attention. Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a “human computer” under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering. These “human computers” had the task of measuring and recording the brightness of stars in the observatory's photographic plates. Leavitt was assigned to study “variable stars”, and it was then that Leavitt made an important discovery. Some of the stars in Leavitt's study had consistent brightness wherever they were, making the so-called Cepheid variables a reliable tool for measuring astronomical distances.
Drake and the Drake equation [Photo via the SETI Institute]
Interested in extraterrestrial life? Then Frank Drake may be a name familiar to you. He is among those who pioneered SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the catch-all term for all efforts toward finding alien life. Drake was the one who conducted the first modern SETI experiment 57 years ago, and he's still at it today.
He also came up with a mathematical equation that calculates the number of detectable alien civilizations in the Milky Way, aptly named the Drake equation. At 87, Drake is still very much active in SETI efforts.
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