Like that of any human activity, the history of astronomy has been played out under the influence of myriad cultural, institutional, political, sociological, technological, and natural forces. Any history that focuses only on the greatest participants in a field likely misses a great deal of interest and historical value. Inasmuch as astronomy is undertaken by and for human beings, therefore, its history cannot be limited to the lives and achievements of a narrow group.
Here we analyze the lives of people who, in our view, produced some substantial contribution to the field of astronomy, were involved in some important astronomical event, or were in some other manner important to the discipline. In doing so we do not discount the work of countless other journeyman astronomers without whom the science would not have progressed as it has.
Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers [BEA] entries presented here do not pretend to illuminate all aspects of a given person’s vita. Moreover, some figures included are better known for their enterprises outside of astronomy. In these situations, their astronomical contributions are emphasized.
For many of our entries, the length is limited to something substantially less than 1,000 words due to the lack of available information.
There is, of course, an inclination to write a great deal more about persons for whom there is a significant literature already available, e. g., Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, William Herschel, or Einstein. Many such individuals are covered in other standard resources, and we have not felt compelled to repeat all that is already published in those cases. In fact, we look at our entries as a guide to recent scholarship and a brief summary of the important facts about the lives involved.
On the other hand, two-thirds of the entries in this encyclopedia are about individuals for whom there is no readily available standard source. In those cases, the length of the article may be longer than might be expected in comparison with those of better known astronomers, and reflects the fact that an entry offers the first (and perhaps only) easily available information about the astronomer involved: It is not difficult to find sources on “Greats” such as Galileo Galilei; however, it is hard to find information on Galilei’s acolyte, Mario Guiducci.
Citations within the text have been avoided to enhance readability. Nearly all articles end with a list of selected references. The reader is thus presented with opportunities for further research; no article is intended to be a dead end. Toward that end, if we do not provide additional resources for an entry, the subject will be cross-referenced within other articles for which we do provide selected references.
In compiling the selected references, we have tried to include difficult-to-identify secondary sources. At the same time we have largely excluded standard reference works and include only some of the latest canonical works covering the best-known figures in astronomy.
The BEA documents individuals born from Antiquity to approximately mid–1918. Subjects may be living or dead. While some ancient figures have become legendary, we have tried to avoid clearly mythological ones. For example, while the royal Chinese astronomers Ho and Hsi (supposedly third millennium BCE) appear in nearly every history of eclipses, they warrant no entry here.
This terminal birth date assures that the subjects written about have completed most of their careers, and that sufficient time likely has elapsed since their featured accomplishments that a historical perspective on their work is possible. Note that almost all of our subjects began their careers before the watershed transformation of astronomy brought about by the events of World War II. It is also true that the number of astronomers significantly increased after this time. Our youngest subject is Gérard de Vaucouleurs; our oldest is Homer.
Our entry selection embraces a broad definition of the word “astronomer.” In modern science, little differentiation is made between the words “astronomy” and “astrophysics”; we do not use such a distinction here. For example, our definition includes astrometrists, cosmologists, and planetologists. These three fields were considered separate and self-contained for most of human history.
Cosmology, especially, requires the inclusion of many philosophers and theologians. Early astronomers often also were astrologers. If they performed astronomical pursuits in addition to simple divination, we include them. Likewise, no distinction is made between the professional and the contributing amateur.
With the exception of a few important cases, instrument makers are included only if they pursued astronomical work with their instruments. Surveyors and cartographers are included if their study of the stars went beyond mere reference for terrestrial mapmaking.
Lastly, a select group of authors, editors of astronomical journals, founders of astronomical societies, observatory builders and directors, astronomy
historians, and patrons of astronomy are included.
A common pitfall in the history of science is to make the story of a discipline appear to be a single ladder ascending toward modern theory. Instead, it is a tree with many branches, only some of which have led to our current understanding of the Universe. Indeed, seemingly dead branches may become reanimated later in time. And branches may merge as ideas once considered unrelated are brought together. A better metaphor may be a vine, one with many grafts.
Scientists who contributed theories no longer held salient, or who made observations now considered suspect, nonetheless are included on our list if their effort was considered scientifically useful in its time, and the basis for further inquiry. At the same time, scientists whose ideas or techniques are now considered prescient, but who were unrecognized in their lifetimes, may appear as well.
The contributions of persons selected for entries in this work were weighed in the context of their times. Thus, while a contribution made by a medieval scholar might seem small by today’s standards, it was significant for its era. We are especially proud of our inclusion of “non- western” figures who often have been given little treatment in histories of astronomy. Finally, we have included numerous entries of fewer than 100 words, some just a sentence or two, to introduce their names and place them in context within the broader vistas of astronomy.
Construction of the subject list was done by the editor-in-chief in consultation with the content editors. Well-known historian of astronomy Owen Gingerich generously volunteered his time to comment upon draft lists. Still, while an earnest attempt was made to make an objective selection of our more than 1,500 entries, responsibility for omissions must rest with the editor-in-chief. Most vulnerable to omission were those born in the last century.
Each content editor was assigned a thematic editorial responsibility, though all were called upon, at one time or another, to edit articles outside of this specialty.
The assignments were as follows:
Classical and Medieval Astronomers-Katherine Bracher
Renaissance and Enlightenment Astronomers-Richard A. Jarrell
Nineteenth Century Astronomers-Marvin Bolt
Twentieth Century Astronomers/Astrophysicists-Virginia Trimble
Astronomers of the Islamic World-Jamil Ragep
Nonvocational Astronomers-Thomas R. Williams
Astronomy Popularizers-Jordan D. Marche, II
All content editors also contributed articles to the BEA. JoAnn Palmeri edited the vital references for all entries. Additionally she served as our illustrations editor.
Editor-in-Chief Thomas Hockey
Senior Editors Virginia Trimble Thomas R. Williams
Editors Katherine Bracher Richard A. Jarrell Jordan D. Marché, II, F. Jamil Ragep
Associate Editor JoAnn Palmeri
Assistant Editor Marvin Bolt