So far as we know, the first people to map the positions of stars were the Chinese astronomers Shi Shen, Gan De and Wu Xian in the third and fourth century BC. Their work was passed along over the centuries in various media, although inaccurately. The earliest copy we have is a star map from the Tang Dynasty (roughly 9th century AD), discovered in modern times in the ruins of a monastery in the deserts of central Asia.
The earliest Western catalog of stars was created by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus around 129 BC, building on earlier work going back to the Babylonians. Most of Hipparchus’s work was lost, although later astronomers used parts of it. A record of his star map may be preserved in the celestial globe on a second-century AD statue of Atlas, recovered from Roman ruins during the Renaissance.
Chinese, Babylonians and Greeks were chiefly interested in how the Sun,
Moon and planets moved through the patterns the stars made on the sky.
A main aim was astrological predictions. But each culture grouped stars
in different “constellations,” and astrologers were never
able to agree on a system for prediction. Astrology was a grand first
attempt at cosmology
is, a system for understanding the workings of the universe
it could never develop into a science. For the world is not in fact influenced
by the positions of stars. After all, the patterns they form would look
completely different if they were viewed from some other position in space.
Brought to you by the
Center for History of Physics, a Division of the
American Institute of Physics