Top Ten Astronomers
These two astronomers come in one package, because their main contribution to the astronomical field was a mutual effort. This important contribution was the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation or CMB. Basically, the CMB was an aftershock of the explosive birth of the Universe – the Big Bang. This aftershock had been theorized before its discovery by Penzias and Wilson in the 1960s, but it’s exact value hadn’t been pinpointed until the two scientists began experimenting with the Holmdel Horn Antenna at Bell Labs. As they experimented, they realized they had an ever-present background radiation in their data, and after cleaning their equipment of pigeon droppings, they deduced that the radiation was not coming from anywhere on Earth – or even in the galaxy – but outside the Milky Way… It wasn’t until later that the two realized that their discovery had any significance, when it dawned on them that they had discovered the elusive aftershock of the Big Bang. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery.
The significance of the discovery lies in the fact that at that time there was still a good deal of dispute over whether or not the Big Bang had even occurred. The main opposing theory, known as the Steady State theory, was virtually abandoned by astronomers following the momentous discovery. Some important outcomes of the discovery include evidence for the inflationary model of the universe, the suggestion of a Dark Age of the Universe, advancements in interferometry and countless other repercussions in the astronomical field.
Copernicus was a European scientist born in 1473, and one of the most important of the Renaissance. He is extremely significant because he is credited as the first astronomer to put forward a comprehensive heliocentric version of the solar system. Although some ancient astronomers had pondered a heliocentric theory, their works had either been lost to the ages or largely ignored. However, in 1543 when his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published, the theory could simply not be brushed aside any longer. The idea that the Earth revolved around the sun (and not vice versa) went directly against the teachings of the church, and this publication was in a time when the church controlled most of society. Although Copernicus died in the year of his great work’s publication, he still no doubt feared persecution from religious authorities and realized that even after death his name and the reputation of his work could be sullied. Interestingly enough, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres is actually dedicated to the Pope at the time, Pope Paul III, almost definitely to avoid disfavor with the church. For his courageous introduction of the true nature of the solar system to European scholars he is remembered as a monument to the truth in a society largely unwilling to accept it.
William Herschel was an English astronomer born in Germany, in 1738. Interestingly enough, he was a talented musician (he composed twenty-four symphonies), and as a youngster, his passion for music led him into mathematics. This interest in math eventually led him to astronomy, the field in which he is most famous for working. A fascinating side-note to his astronomical career was the fact that Herschel built his own reflecting telescopes. He used his self-made telescopes to observe binary systems of stars, in which two stars orbit around a common center of gravity in a bound system. These were important star systems because many believed that distances to them could be more easily discovered than single star systems, and because other information on the nature of stars could be gleaned from these binary stars. Herschel is credited with discovering over eight hundred of these binary systems. However, his massive observational output didn’t stop there– Herschel also discovered over twenty-four hundred deep sky objects that he termed nebulae.