Passion of the People – 1.1.10

Astronomy and Scientific Awakening in the Baroque Era

The European nobility increasingly promoted astronomy at their courts in the Baroque period (ca. mid-17th century – 18th century) as a sign of their culture and education. In addition, national observatories were founded, such as the Royal Greenwich Observatory or the Paris Observatory. Their main task was to provide tables for navigation, but they also carried out astronomical research. While the research of the court astronomers was bound to the personal interest of the princes, lords and kings, longer-term research traditions were able to develop at the national observatories, so that such independent observatories took on a leading role in research at the latest with the beginning of the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 17th century, astronomers began to observe celestial bodies with the help of newly discovered optical instruments. In 1668, Isaac Newton came up with the idea of focusing light with mirrors instead of lenses made of glass – the invention of the reflecting telescope. He also succeeded in 1669 in discovering the attraction of mass (gravitation) and the first theory to explain the phenomenon of “light” as particle radiation, so that the understanding of the cosmos was slowly placed on a new basis. 

The astronomy of the 18th century is characterised above all by two major lines:

  • in observational astronomy, among other things, the improvement of telescopes (first achromats around 1730, large reflecting telescopes, new eyepieces, micrometers, etc.) and the construction of efficient observatories;
  • in theory, the development of celestial mechanics (based on Newton’s law of gravitation) and the first models of cosmology (formation of the Solar System, star clusters, structure of the Milky Way).

This led to important discoveries such as

  • planet Uranus, periodic comets, differential rotation of the sun;
  • proper motion of the Sun and nearby stars, fixed star aberration;
  • the first determination of the true size of the solar system by calculating the astronomical unit from a transit of Venus.

With increasingly powerful telescopes, the study of nebulous celestial objects became an important field of work. The brighter star clusters were already recognised as such. In 1718, Edmond Halley established the thesis of the proper motion of the fixed stars by comparing them with ancient star charts.

In 1728, in an unsuccessful attempt to measure a parallax of the “fixed stars”, James Bradley discovered that the position of each star fluctuates in the course of the year (aberration). This was also accepted by most of the then still numerous followers of the Tychonian world view as proof of the movement of the Earth. It also allowed the movement of light to be confirmed and the speed of light to be calculated more accurately.

In 1755, Immanuel Kant drew up the first theories about the origin of our solar system resulting purely from mechanical processes.

In 1761, several observers of the transit of Venus on 6 June detected the first extraterrestrial atmosphere.

In 1769, James Cook on Tahiti, as one of several observers of the transit of Venus on 3 June scattered around the world, participated in the most accurate determination of the distance Earth – Sun for well over a century.

Historic observatory – Image by ThomasPixabay
The venus transit as it might also be visible in the late 18th century – Image by Katharine LosterPixabay
The discovery of the stars – improved telescopes brought them nearer to mankind – Image by eli007Pixabay

Further Resources

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Isaac Newton – English Physicist & Formulated the Laws of Gravity

Isaac Newton’s Contribution to Astronomy

A replica of Isaac Newton’s telescope. Discussion between Robert and mirror-maker Terry Kubecki-Pearce

Kopernikanische Revolution und moderne Naturwissenschaft

Meccanica Celeste – LEZIONE N.1 – Daniele Spiga

Meccanica Celeste – LEZIONE N.2 – Daniele Spiga

La Storia Del Nostro Sistema Solare Dall’Inizio Alla Fine – IL LATO POSITIVO

Quanto si estende davvero la Via Lattea? Scoperte ai confini della nostra galassia | Documentario – Iodisea | Il Mondo delle Odissee

La Via Lattea si muove nel cielo: il video è spettacolare – La Repubblica

Online Resources

An online description of the Baroque observatory in the German monastery Ochsenhausen

Der Himmel über Tübingen – Barocksternwarten – Landesvermessung – Astrophysik. Tagung des Arbeitskreises Astronomiegeschichte in der Astronomischen Gesellschaft 2013.

A bibliography of astronomic literature up to 1700

La nascita degli osservatoriIstituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Museo Galileo

Osservatori astronomici – TRECCANI

L’osservatorio astronomico di Torino: una storia lunga 250 anni – Luisa Schiavone, INAF

Dove si trovano gli osservatori astronomici professionali in Italia – Luca Tortorelli, Geopop

Isaac Newton è nato il 25 dicembre, ma anche il 4 gennaio: com’è possibile? – Gabriele Di FLavio, Geopop

L’Età dei Lumi: astronomia. La strumentazione astronomica – TRECCANI

Cos’è la meccanica celeste – Articoli di astronomia

Cosmologia – TRECCANI

La più antica mappa stellare: il Disco di Nebra – Passione Astronomia

Bradley, James – TRECCANI

Aberrazione della luce – Rete di Eratostene


Venere perché ti metti in mezzo? – Sofia Cussini, MEDIA INAF

James Cook, il cartografo dei mari – STORICA National Geographic

James Cook e il transito di Venere – Francesca Diodati,

Further Readings

BAROCKE UNSCHÄRFERELATION: Reisen zum Mond im 17. Jahrhundert

Osservare l’Universo. La specola astronomica nel Palazzo Reale a Palermo – Francesco Di Paola

Isaac Newton. Filosofo della Natura, interprete della Scrittura, cronologo degli Antichi Regni – Niccolò Guicciardini

Elementi di Meccanica Celeste

Aberrazione stellare


Teaching Material

Isaac Newton – Wheel of Science with Neil deGrasse Tyson (video)

Isaac Newton: biografia e scoperte – Studenti

For Kids

Earth’s Orbit with Sir Isaac Newton (video)

Newton’s Discovery prepared for Kids (video)

Un piccolo telescopio fatto in casa con pochi e semplici passaggi… wow! – Sagace

C’era una volta… Gli scopritori 🤔 Newton 🍎 – C’era una volta… (Hello Maestro)

La forza di gravità – School in motion Festival

Paxi – Il Sistema Solare – European Space Agency, ESA

Big Bang! In Viaggio nello Spazio con Margherita Hack – Le Stelle, le Galassie e la Via Lattea – Big Bang!

Lo spazio intorno a noi – HUB Scuola