Who Discovered Space?
This was a question posted on Yahoo Answers today, in the Astronomy & Space category. I strongly suspect it was posted as a joke, considering what I know of typical behaviour in Yahoo Answers. The replies to it pretty much bore that out, every reply was some variation of “the first human that gazed up into the sky.” I thought this was fascinating on several levels. Fascinating because all of the people who answered that were full of shit, even though they thought they were making sense. And secondly, because it is an interesting question, do we know who the first person was who realized that the night sky was something akin to what modern science knows it to be?
First, why were the people who thought cavemen discovered space full of it? Simple, cavemen didn’t have our modern knowledge of the Universe, so when they looked up at the night sky, they didn’t have the faintest idea what they were looking at. And they certainly didn’t imagine that the points of light they were seeing were planets or other versions of the Sun, why would they? When learned men started trying to understand what they were looking at, they came up with celestial spheres. These were spheres encircling the Earth with lights embedded in them. They did notice that the planets in the sky moved against the background of other stars, so they decided there were spheres nested inside spheres.
Yet so many people who answered the question assumed that cavemen looked up and comprehended the vast void of space that we now know we are looking at. To me this is a wonderful example of one of human’s greatest weaknesses, people simply assume that other people see the world through their eyes. Most people make this assumption on such an implicit level that they don’t even realize they are doing it. I would actually be curious to know what the people who answered would say if they knew I thought they were full of shit. I would hope that some would agree, and realize they hadn’t thought it through or knew they were giving a flippant answer. Some though would no doubt defend their answer, by one tiresome means or another. What is it with people who can’t admit they are wrong?
Moving right along, who did “discover space?” Copernicus would be one possible answer, he is in fact the fellow that realized that the Sun was at the centre, not the Earth. That’s as far as he got though, Copernicus still thought that the heavens were transparent spheres with lights embedded in them. It may sound silly in to us, but one has to remember than these were people who sincerely believed that there was a creator, a creator who had set this all up for our benefit. So the scientists of the day weren’t so much as looking for naturalistic explanations, they were just trying to understand God’s creation. Tycho Brahe is another one who realized there was a problem with the celestial spheres, he observed that comets apparently passed through them on their journeys to and from the Sun. Still, that’s as far as he got.
No, the real answer is an obscure astronomer named Thomas Digges (1546 – 24 August 1595). He was the first to realize that there were no spheres at all, or at least there was no outermost sphere, that the points in the sky we were seeing were spread throughout a near infinite void. And I mean near infinite, he also realized that what we were seeing in the sky was proof that the Universe was not infinite. How the hell did he come up what that? He reasoned that if the universe was infinite, that any direction we looked there would eventually be a star, and the night sky would be as bright as the daytime sky. It’s called the dark night sky paradox, one of humanity’s first stabs at defining the scope of the cosmos.
In other words, until 1600 or so, people gazing at the night sky might have been amazed at what they were seeing, but they had no clue what they were looking at. They assumed that whatever it was, it was just set and setting for the Earth, a God given backdrop to the play that was humanity. Thomas Digges was apparently the first to grasp that what we were seeing in the night sky was far grander than humans had ever imagined. So the next time the gentle reader is staring up at the night sky and wondering at the vastness of it all, it was Thomas Digges who led the way more than 400 years ago.
An eye blink in human history. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is public domain under US copyright law. It’s actually the work of the esteemed Mr Digges, not only the first translation of Copernicus into English, but the first illustration of the stars as scattered in a void. We don’t apparently have an image of him, but his life’s work lives on. I drink to his vision and his memory, skol Mr Digges!)