In no realm of nature is the principle of cause and effect more conspicuous than in astronomy; and we fall into the habit of thinking of its laws as not only being unchangeable in our universe, but necessary to the conception of any universe that might have been substituted in its place. The first inhabitants of the world were compelled to accommodate their acts to the daily and annual alternations of light and darkness and of heat and cold, as much as to the irregular changes of weather, attacks of disease, and the fortune of war. They soon came to regard the influence of the sun, in connection with light and heat, as a cause. This led to a search for other signs in the heavens. If the appearance of a comet was sometimes noted simultaneously with the death of a great ruler, or an eclipse with a scourge of plague, these might well be looked upon as causes in the same sense that the veering or backing of the wind is regarded as a cause of fine or foul weather.
For these reasons the earnest men of all ages have recorded the occurrence of comets, eclipses, new stars, meteor showers, and remarkable conjunctions of the planets, as well as plagues and famines, floods and droughts, wars and the deaths of great rulers. Sometimes they thought they could trace connections which might lead them to say that a comet presaged famine, or an eclipse war.
Even if the scientific spirit of observation and deduction (astronomy) has sometimes led to erroneous systems for predicting terrestrial events (astrology), the old astronomer and astrologer should be respected for their diligence in recording astronomical events. For, out of the scanty records which have survived the destructive acts of fire and flood, of monarchs and mobs, much has been found that has helped to a fuller knowledge of the heavenly motions than was possible without these records.
There are other reasons these crude notions of the ancients must be tolerated. The historian, wishing to give credit wherever it may be due, is met by two difficulties. Firstly, only a few records of very ancient astronomy are extensive, and the authenticity of many of these is open to doubt. Secondly, it is very difficult to divest of present knowledge, and to appreciate the originality of thought required to make the first beginnings.
Great progress was made when systematic observations began, such as following the motion of the moon and planets among the stars, and the inferred motion of the sun among the stars, by observing their heliacal risings – i.e., the times of year when a star would first be seen to rise at sunrise, and when it could last be seen to rise at sunset. The grouping of the stars into constellations and recording their places was a useful observation. The theoretical prediction of eclipses of the sun and moon, and of the motions of the planets among the stars, became later the highest goal in astronomy.
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