Earth and Space

A scientific journey into the past

Perspectives for 14-16 16-19 TEACHER COMMUNITY

Anthony Waterhouse fellow and tutor at Glasgow International College, Vasileios Spathopoulos, combined his interests in astronomy and history to create shareable classroom resources.

Astronomy's rich history

Observational astronomy is one of the oldest sciences and continues to this day to inspire many young people around the world. The field has a history rooted in many cultures, from medieval Islam, India and China to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. 

Ruins of the ancient city of Harran, Mesopotamia (Urfa, Turkey), old astronomy tower

Although lacking important observational technology such as the telescope, they performed fascinating ​naked eye measurements and devised simple but ingenious astronomical calculations. Examples include methods for estimating the difference in longitude between geographical locations using lunar eclipses, the distance to the Moon using a solar eclipse, and determining the correct direction from a specific location to the sacred Islamic city of Mecca.

Exploring this rich history is a great way to engage and include students in the classroom.

Simulating ancient measurements with stellarium

My idea was to create activities that would simulate the astronomical observations and measurements of ancient and medieval cultures. To do this, I used the wonderful freeware Stellarium planetarium software. Anyone can download it (or even use the simpler web-based or mobile app versions), to view a realistic representation of the sky from any location, at any time in the past, present or future. 

The ancient Greeks are often looked upon as the pioneers in this field but my intention was to portray the contribution of various civilisations and especially those non-western ones, whose contribution to the development of science is often not emphasised enough. Those completing the activities will thus follow in the footsteps of astronomers from a variety of ancient cultures. So, for example, in 190 BCE there was a solar eclipse visible from the ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt. The great astronomer Hipparchus used recorded measurements from this eclipse to estimate the distance to the Moon. By travelling back in time with Stellarium, one can view this exact same eclipse from Alexandria and estimate for oneself how far the Moon is from our planet.

Submitted by Vasileios Spathopoulos

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