Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
-Robert Frost, “Star-Splitter.”
The study of magnitudes in motion. Not a very poetic description, but this is how ancient authors characterized the knowledge of the heavens. Astronomy is one of the seven liberal arts, but for most undergraduates, it means sitting sleepily in a comfortable planetarium or working out the mass of Jupiter’s moons in a lab. The ancient approach, however, began by going out, looking up, and mapping what the eye could see.
This winter semester, the freshmen of Thomas More College will be doing just that as they undertake to master the principles of astronomical science set forth by various ancient authors, beginning with Ptolemy’s Almagest and working their way to contemporary authors. The main thrust of the course, however, is practical. Building upon previous principles learned in their study of Euclid, freshmen will seek to apply them to the motions of the night sky through regular, careful charting and observation.
The course, new to Thomas More College, is not only of interest to freshmen. As senior Alec Sanderson reported, several hours of his Christmas holiday were spent scrutinizing the stars in the Vermont snow. “My brother even came out with me,” he said, “and we sat in the cold looking up at the sky, tracked the moon, and talked”.
But isn’t Ptolemy a bit, well, outdated? How does the study of ancient astronomy contribute to a liberal arts education? In three ways. Beginning with observation familiarizes the student with the most self-evident knowledge of the heavens, which many introductory astronomy courses tend to bypass altogether. In addition, the exacting, logical nature of the science demands that the student master basic principles, form premises, and make conclusions in a manner that prepares them for later courses in philosophy. Finally, there is a humanistic element to it: sheer wonder at the beauty of the night sky and the motions of the heavens. Taken together, this new course in astronomy offers Thomas More students a traditional approach to knowing the world by means of firsthand experience, engaging the whole person through an ancient art.