Astronomy Goes Old School – REALLY Old School

[Left: Medieval scholars learn how to use a cardboard astrolabe at the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI; Right: CCSU Students in a Cultural Astronomy class learn how to use astrolabes]

Astronomy has rightly been called the oldest science. From using the phases of the moon to record the passage of time and make calendars to monitoring the position of the sun at sunrise to determine the summer solstice, humans have been studying the heavens throughout recorded history. Technology such as the telescope and sensitive cameras (not to mention space probes!) has greatly enhanced our ability to understand the universe around us. But one particular type of astronomical technology is decidedly old school – really old school! The origins of the astrolabe are lost to history, but probably date back to around the 6th century CE. Part calculator, part star map, part surveying and navigational tool, and part work of art, the astrolabe has been used for centuries to calculate the time from the position of the sun or stars, estimate one’s latitude, and measure the heights of buildings and trees, among other uses. Although they were largely replaced by more “modern” technologies by the 18th century, they are still an excellent tool that can be used to teach basic astronomical concepts, as well as demonstrate the close connections between astronomy, history, art, and religion (as they were used to calculate prayer times by both Christians and Muslims in medieval times).

chaucerastrolabe

[So-called Chaucer Astrolabe in the British Museum]

I have greatly enjoyed teaching students how to use simple cardboard astrolabes, both in a Cultural Astronomy course as well as as a guest lecturer in a Medieval History class, as well as giving lectures and workshops at other universities and numerous conferences. If you ever get the chance, peruse the astrolabe collections at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Oxford University Museum of the History of Science. I have been fortunate to have seen both these collections in person and they are quite simply out of this world!

— Kris Larsen

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