Studying the universe can be an overwhelming spiritual experience. We see pictures of our solar system, distant stars, and galaxies, but the human minds fail to comprehend the size and complexity of this huge universe. In this chapter, you will encounter a host of theories and names. I attempted very hard to make the presented material simple, so you can get an appreciation of the splendor and grandeur of this universe. However, if you are temporarily stunned, you are sharing the astonishment of the scientists who lived through the development of their theories, and who at times saw nothing but increasing complexity with little hope of understanding. If you stick to it, you will share the excitement of the scientists, and the humility of the believers. If you keep asking questions: Who, Why, and How, you will have only one logical answer: God exists and He made it His Way."
From time immemorial, people have wondered at the starry heavens. On a clear night, the beautiful stars hang like shining jewels against the vast darkness of space. The parade of sunrise and sunset, the changing phases of the moon, and the silent convoy of the stars across the black dome of heaven have long proven a spectacle and a puzzle. The spectacle has inspired the artist, the musician, and the poet. The puzzle has intrigued philosophers and scientists. Just what is out there in the space? What is the meaning of it all? How did it start? Is there life out there? We don't know. But, who has any idea of what God can do?
The spectacle of the heaven above charges the believers with humility and faith. They realize that they are a grain of dust on a grain of dust on a grain of dust. Yet, God gives us the intellect to contemplate all of this. The recent Hubble telescope discovery increased the estimates for the known galaxies from 10 billion to 100 billion, with each galaxy containing billions of stars, and perhaps planetary systems. When we discover new galaxies, stars and planets, this should make us aware of how great God is, and how little we know. God simply revealed some of his magnificence.
To ancient peoples the sky exhibited many repetitive behaviors. The bright sun, which divided daytime from nighttime, rose every morning from one direction, the east, moved steadily across the sky during the day, and set in a nearly opposite direction, the west. At night more than 1000 visible stars followed a similar course, appearing to rotate in permanent groupings, called constellations, around a fixed point in the sky, which was known as the north celestial pole.
Observation of the stars that appear in the west after sunset or in the east before sunrise showed that the relative position of the sun among the stars changed gradually. The Egyptians may have been the first to discover that the sun moves completely around the sphere of the fixed stars in approximately 365 days.
Several ancient peoples, notably the Egyptians, the Mayans, and the Chinese, developed interesting constellation maps and useful calendars but the Babylonians accomplished even greater achievements. To perfect their calendar, they studied the motions of the sun and moon. It was their custom to designate as the beginning of each month the day after the new moon, when the lunar crescent first appeared after sunset.
Due to limited knowledge, the earliest civilizations developed inaccurate model of the universe. At about 4000 BC, the Mesopotamians, believed that the Earth is the center of the universe and that the other heavenly bodies move around it. Later, in ancient Greece, the challenge was resumed, and a new view taken of the universe. The Greek Aristotle and the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy expanded the nightly motion of stars across the sky from a dome to a sphere. In doing so, the Greeks took the first step towards realizing that the universe is larger than it appears. They also developed an elaborate mathematical way of describing the cyclic motion of the Moon and planets around the Earth, which, on what seemed good evidence, appeared fixed at the center of universe. The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos maintained, about 270 BC, that the Earth revolved around the sun. However, because of Aristotle's authority, the Greeks regarded the colossal, heavy Earth as a motionless globe around which the universe revolved. This theory, known as the geocentric system, remained virtually unchallenged for about 2000 years due to the widely accepted model of the universe according to the famous Aristotle. Had humanity believed Aristarchus, our knowledge of astronomy would have been more advanced than our present case.
Greek astronomy was transmitted eastward to the Syrians, the Hindus, and the Arabs. The Arabic astronomers compiled new star catalogs in the 9th and 10th centuries and subsequently developed tables of planetary motion. Arab astronomers recognized the Great Nebula in Andromeda, the first galaxy other than our own, as a faint blur as early as 964 AD in the vast loneliness of the universe. Al-Battani (known also as Albatenius), leading Arab astronomer and mathematician of his time, made his astronomical observations in Syria for a period of more than 40 years. He published his work as "De Motu Stellarum" (Concerning the Motion of the Stars, 1537), and corrected errors of Ptolemy in regards to the length of the year.
In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus published his theories "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres". The Sun, not the Earth, was put at the center of the universe, the planets were set in orbits about it, and the human beings were abdicated from their throne at the center of all creation.