In 16th century Poland, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed a

model of the solar system that involved the Earth revolving around the sun. The
model wasn't completely correct, as astronomers of the time struggled with the
backwards path Mars sometimes took, but it eventually changed the way many
scientists viewed the solar system.
Using detailed measurements of the path of planets kept by Danish
astronomer Tycho Brahe,Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) determined that planets
traveled around the sun not in circles but in ellipses. In so doing, he calculated
three laws involving the motions of planets that astronomers still use in
calculations today.
Born in Italy, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is often credited with the creation of the
optical telescope, though in truth he improved on existing models. The
astronomer (also mathematician, physicist and philosopher) turned the new
observational tool toward the heavens, where he discovered the four primary
moons of Jupiter (now known as the Galilean moons), as well as the rings of
Saturn. Though a model of the Earth circling the sun was first proposed by
Copernicus, it took some time before it became widely accepted. Galileo is most
widely known for defending the idea several years after Kepler had already
calculated the path of planets, and Galileo wound up under house arrest at the
end of his lifetime because of it.
Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) proposed the earliest theory
about the nature of light, a phenomena that puzzled scientists for hundreds of
years. His improvements on the telescope allowed him to make the first
observations of Saturn's rings and to discover its moon, Titan.
Building on the work of those who had gone before him, English astronomerSir
Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is most famous for his work on forces, specifically
gravity. He calculated three laws describing the motion of forces between
objects, known today as Newton's laws.
In the early 20th century, German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) became of
of the most famous scientists ever after proposing a new way of looking at the
universe that went beyond current understanding. Einstein suggested that the
laws of physics are the same throughout the universe, that the speed of light in a
vacuum is constant, and that space and time are linked in an entity known as
space-time, which is distorted by gravity.
At the same time Einstein was expanding man's view of the universe, American
astronomer Edwin Hubble (1899-1953) calculated that a small blob in the sky
existed outside of the Milky Way. Prior to his observations, the discussion over
the size of the universe was divided as to whether or not only a single galaxy
existed. Hubble went on to determine that the universe itself was expanding, a
calculation which later came to be known as Hubble's law. Hubble's observations
of the various galaxies allowed him to create a standard system of classification
still used today.
American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) may not have been a great
scientists in comparison to some on this list, but he is one of the most famous
astronomers. Sagan not only made important scientific studies in the fields of
planetary science, he also managed to popularized astronomy more than any
other individual. His charismatic teaching and boundless energy impacted people
around the world as he broke down complicated subjects in a way that interested
television viewers even as he educated them.
Stephen Hawking (born 1942) has made many significant insights into the field of
cosmology. He proposed that, as the universe has a beginning, it will likely also
end. He also suggested that it has no boundary or border. Despite being viewed
as one of the most brilliant minds since Einstein, many of Hawking's books and
lectures are steered toward the general public as he seeks to educate people
about the universe they live in.
Other astronomers that achieved significant discoveries and are often mentioned
among the greats:
Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) measured how long it took the
planets Jupiter and Mars to rotate, as well as discovering four moons of Saturn
and the gap in the planet's rings. When NASA launched a satellite to orbit Saturn
and its moons in 1997, it was fittingly dubbed Cassini.
Edmond Halley (1656-1742) was the British scientist who reviewed historical
comet sightings and proposed that the comet which appeared in 1456, 1531,
1607, and 1682 were all the same, and would return in 1758. Although he died
before its return, he was proven correct, and the comet was named in his honor.
French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817) composed a database of objects
known at the time as "nebulae," which included 103 objects at its final
publication, though additional objects were added based on his personal notes.
Many of these objects are often listed with their catalog name, such as the
Andromeda Galaxy, known as M31. Messier also discovered 13 comets over the
course of his lifetime.
British astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) cataloged over 2,500 deep sky
objects. He also discovered Uranus and its two brightest moons, two of Saturn's
moons, and the Martian ice caps. William trained his sister, Caroline
Herschel (1750-1848), in astronomy, and she became the first woman to discover
a comet, identifying several over the course of her lifetime.
Henrietta Swann Leavitt (1868-1921) was one of several women working as a
human "computer" at Harvard college, identifying images of variable stars on
photographic plates. She discovered that the brightness of a special flashing star
known as a Cepheid variable was related to how often it pulsed. This relationship
allowed astronomers to calculate the distances of stars and galaxies, the size of
the Milky Way, and the expansion of the universe. [This entry was corrected J une
12, 2012.]
American astronomer Harlow Shapley (1885-1972) calculated the size of the Milky
Way galaxy and general location of its center. He argued that the objects known
as "nebula" lay within the galaxy, rather than outside of it, and in 1920
participated in the "Great Debate". He also incorrectly disagreed with Edwin
Hubble's observations that the universe boasted galaxies other than the Milky
Frank Drake (born 1930) is one of the pioneers in the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence. He was one of the founders of the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence (SETI) and the deviser of the Drake equation, a mathematical
equation used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky
Way galaxy able to be detected.
American astronomer William K. Hartmann (born 1939) put forth the most widely
accepted theory on the formation of the moon in 1975. He proposed that, after a
collision with a large body scooped, debris from the Earth coalesced into the
—Nola Taylor Redd
The Greatest Historical Astronomers

An interesting book entitled, "Human Accomplishment" by Charles Murray has
attempted to select the most important figures in the arts and sciences from 800 BC to
1950 AD. A total of 4002 significant figures were culled from a large number of
authoritative sources covering astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology,
earth sciences, technology, the various arts, and philosophy. Murray used statistical
analysis as a guide to avoid selections based on nationality, gender, race, or popularity.
I think he did a very credible job in his selection process. The top twenty people were
ranked within each class. For example, the two most important figures in physics were
Newton and Einstein, in mathematics, Euler and Newton, and in technology, Watt and

Of the 4002 significant figures selected, 124 were astronomers. 204 were chemists, 85
were in the earth sciences, 218 were physicists and 101 were mathematicians. As for
the arts, there were 522 significant musicians and 1128 significant authors.

Here are his top twenty astronomers in rank order with accomplishments:

1.GALILEO Galilei (1564-1642)
Resolved the stars in the Milky Way, discovered sunspots and measured the
Sun’s rotation, observed Venus phases, discovered four moons of Jupiter,
observed lunar features and measured lunar wobble, supported the Copernican
system of planetary movement via his observations.

2. KEPLER Johannes (1571 – 1630)
Using Brahe’s precise data derived his three laws of planetary elliptical motion,
provided explanation of optical image formation through small apertures, the first
enunciation of the inverse square law for intensity of illumination.

3. HERSCHEL William (1738 – 1822)
The discoverer of Uranus and several satellites of Saturn and Uranus,
discovered that some double stars orbit each other, discovered infrared radiation,
attempted to map the Milky Way’s shape, known for building state-of-the-art

4. LAPLACE Pierre-Simon (1749 – 1827)
Postulated the solar system evolved from a large flattened cloud of gas,
published differential equations describing planetary orbits and tides, determined
the masses of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, applied probability theory to errors in

5. COPERNICUS Nicolaus (1473 – 1543)
Proposed Earth orbited the Sun via De Revolutionibus Orbium
Coelestium contradicting the long held Ptolomic belief that the Sun orbited the
Earth thereby laying the groundwork for Galileo and Kepler.

6. PTOLOMY Claudius (2
century AD)
Through his Almagest constructed an accurate geocentric model of the solar
system consisting of a series of deferents and epicycles that was followed for 15
centuries until Copernicus.

7. BRAHE Tycho (1546 – 1601)
Chronicled supernova of 1572 and discovered it had no diurnal parallax proving it
lay beyond the Moon, plotted the motion of the comet of 1577, accurately plotted
motions of planets used by Kepler after his death.

8, HALLEY Edmond (1656 – 1742)
Astronomer Royal, discovered Omega Centauri, paid for publishing
Newton’s Principia, using Newton’ gravitational law predicted the comet of 1682
would return in 76 years, invented the idea of using transits of Mercury and
Venus to determine distance to the Sun.

9, CASSINI Giovanni (1625 – 1712)
Measured Mars and Jupiter rotation periods, first scientific records of zodiacal
light, discovered the Cassini division, and investigated atmospheric refraction.

10, HIPPARCHUS of Nicaea(190 - 120 BC)
Founder of systematic observational astronomy, discovered the precession of the
equinoxes, confirmed Eratosthenes value for the obliquity of the ecliptic,
completed a catalog of 1080 stars.

11, BAADE Wilhelm (1893 – 1960)
Proposed supernova could produce cosmic rays and neutron stars, first resolved
stars in Andromeda galaxy, defined Population I and II stars and two kinds of
Cepheid variables.

12. HUBBLE Edwin (1889 – 1953)
Discovered the Hubble classification of galaxies, using Cepheid variables in M31
and M33 calculated their distances, showed that galaxy distribution was
cosmologically uniform, showed galaxies were moving away from us at speeds
proportional to their distance (Hubble’s Law).

13. BESSEL Friedrich (1784 – 1846)
Father of modern astrometry, published first accurate stellar parallax, discovered
orbital deflections of Sirius and Procyon from unseen white dwarfs.

14, HUGGINS Sir William (1824 – 1910)
Invented the stellar spectroscope, comparing laboratory and stellar spectra
demonstrated that the Orion nebula's pure emission spectra indicated its
gaseous nature while Andromeda galaxy had continuous spectra, imaged solar
prominences in H Alpha light.

15, HALE George (1868 – 1938)
The first astrophysicist, invented the spectroheliograph allowing photography of
solar prominences in daylight, discovered magnetic fields in sunspots, planned
and completed the 200-inch Mt. Palomar telescope.

16, EDDINGTON Sir Arthur (1882 – 1944)
An astrophysicist, discovered the stellar mass-luminosity relationship, explained
Cepheid variable pulsations and very high densities of white dwarfs, formulated
theEddington Limit which relates star’s maximum luminosity to its gravitational

17. HERTZSPRUNG Ejnar (1873 – 1967)
Studied stellar proper motions and motions of binary stars, using photography
studied stellar brightness, compared stellar color ratios, plotted color-magnitude
diagram for the Hyades cluster, which evolved to the Hertzsprung-Russell

18. OLBERS Heinrich (1758 – 1840)
Discovered several comets, searched for missing planet between Mars and
Jupiter forecasted by Bode’s Law and discovered Pallas and Vesta suggesting
these were fragments of the missing planet, formulated Olber’s Paradox.

19, KUIPER Gerard (1905 – 73)
First planetary scientist, spectroscopically detected CH
on Titan and CO
Mars, identified the comet-like debris of Kuiper’s Belt at the edge of the solar

20. HEVELIUS Johannes (1611 – 87)
An accomplished instrument maker, introduced the vernier scale for accuracy,
developed a catalog of star positions and a celestial atlas, discovered four
comets and was the first to observe a transit of Mercury.

Although one could quibble with the rank ordering of these great astronomers, it seems
difficult to dislodge any from the list with anybody else. I recommend this book to
anyone interested in the arts and sciences.

Mike Luciuk