Adler Planetarium

The Evolution of Observing

What do an astrolabe, a 15-ft hollow metal sphere, and a smart phone have in common? No, this is not the set up to a bad joke. People have used all three devices across time to better understand their place in the cosmos. The astrolabe, had practical value for 18th century sailors using the stars to navigate a vast ocean (and avoiding those pesky sea monsters), and a smart phone helps you impress your friends with random, astro-factoids. But who are the people who use these devices? And how has technology, over time, changed the way we observe the Universe?

People have looked up to the night sky and wondered what was up there since there have been…people. But each new innovation, each new breakthrough builds on the one before it. We continue to create technology that helps understand the Universe in a deeper way. To get a better sense of how far we’ve come, try to go one day without a timekeeping or navigation aid—this includes a wristwatch, computer, GPS, your phone—even your oven clock. It’s not easy, is it? Ancient peoples like the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, and later the Arabians, regularly observed and recorded the motion of the heavens, and the Sun was often used to tell accurate time on devices like sundials in the era before watches and mechanical clocks. Though they seem simplistic to us today, sundials were an artistic and practical tool that reflected our understanding of the Sun’s daily motion through the sky.

Centuries later, tools like telescopes brought the impossibly distant stars and planets a little closer to home. As telescopes became more powerful, the once-mysterious heavens became more tangible and modern astronomy was born.

The historic Atwood Sphere.

The historic Atwood Sphere.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Today, planetariums like the Adler’s 100-year-old Atwood Sphere (that hollow metal sphere I mentioned earlier), mountaintop observatories, and space-based telescopes allow us to learn more about the night sky and see further and observe more than ever before. Ironically, modern urban dwellers face issues like light pollution, limiting our views of the stars, but with better lighting designs and new technologies we may be able to reclaim the skies and observe even more of our awesome Universe. Next generation technology like the James Webb Space Telescope is already paving the way, so who knows what we’ll find next!

Be sure to check out Cosmic Wonder, now showing in the Grainger Sky Theater. Cosmic Wonder tells the compelling story of how, through time, we have pieced together an understanding of the cosmos, inviting audiences to ask questions and help scientists unlock modern mysteries of the unknown.

Written by Kyle Sater, senior educator for Public Programs at the Adler Planetarium.

Opening image: The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, 1768. Adler Collection, P-130c. 

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