Stars don’t look small because they’re really the size of pinholes in a blanket. The smallest are the size of Earth. The largest have 128,865,170 times Earth’s diameter.
They look small in the sky because they’re distant. It’s for the same reason you can tell how far away your surroundings are by how small they appear; you know the mountains on the horizon are far away because they look shorter than your house.
The nearest star to our solar system is 4.3 light-years away. But what exactly is a light-year?
Light seems to travel instantaneously from your flashlight to the nearest surface, but it actually has a finite speed. In one second, it travels 299,792 km—fast enough to wrap itself around Earth’s equator 7.5 times.
In one year, light covers 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers, enough to wrap around the sun’s equator 2160.5 times. Four times that is the distance to the nearest star.
When you look up into the sky on a clear night away from the glare of the city, you see trillions upon trillions of stars.
Thousands of years ago, the classical astronomers saw the same thing you do today—except perhaps a little different, due to the ever-changing cosmos. And, like you, they weren’t satisfied with just looking. They wanted to know what was out there.
For hundreds of years, they developed model after model to explain why the stars seemed to orbit the Earth and why certain objects in the sky—which they named planets—seemed to wander backwards from time to time.
Tycho Brahe, an astronomer known mainly for what he got wrong, dismissed the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun because he could detect no parallax between the stars.
If he had been able to measure parallax, he might have realized that the universe was much larger than any of his fellow classical astronomers imagined.
So what is parallax…and how can it help us measure the distances between stars?
It is surprisingly difficult to find a flattering image of Tycho Brahe.
Honestly. Do me a favor and do a Google image search for the guy. It’ll come up with all sorts of disfigured images, mostly because his nose got messed up in a sword fight…
I know what you’re thinking. A classical astronomer in a sword fight? Suddenly these people seem less like heroes of modern-day science and more like human beings with lives of their own.
Tycho certainly fits the trend. He’s known for being quite the unpopular sort. Bad-tempered and vain, there were few who respected him for more than just his astronomical accomplishments—and even those were few.
Claudius Ptolemy lived about five centuries after the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s time. Aristotle’s model for the universe—the first geocentric model, with Earth at the center—was still widely accepted, and Ptolemy sought to improve it.
Ptolemy was one of the first of the ancient Greeks to be a true astronomer and mathematician, rather than a philosopher.
Where Aristotle, Plato, Thales, and Pythagoras before him had tried to use “pure thought” to understand the nature of the heavens, Ptolemy set about to perfect the geocentric model mathematically.
This was a huge step forward for science as a whole, as science today relies heavily on mathematics.
In Ptolemy’s time, science didn’t really exist yet. The Greeks preferred to just think through problems logically and reasonably, and if the logic they used was based on untrue assumptions…well, no one was the wiser.
But Ptolemy came up with the wonderful idea to line up observations of the sky with mathematics. And even though Aristotle’s view of the universe shackled him, he moved science forward with great strides.