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An astronomer is a person who studies, classifies, and describes the phenomena of the heavens. The astronomer has been one of the most important roles in the modern scientific world, with some of the great leaps in methodology coming from the realm of astronomy. In the modern day, there are not many who identify as an astronomer, with the American Astronomical Society having less than 7,000 members, for example. Nonetheless, the concept of astronomer continues to fascinate the public as a romantic figure gazing skyward.
One of the most well-known people to bear the name astronomer was the 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus developed a heliocentric model of our solar system, placing the sun at the center and the Earth orbiting it, and in doing so turned most of the predominant world views of the time on their heads. Although a heliocentric model had been put forth by various brilliant minds from the world of Islam, India, and Greece, Copernicus laid his out in the West in such a way that it was impossible for the world to ignore.
Not long after Copernicus, the astronomer Galileo Galilei expanded on Copernicus’ views. He made the telescope substantially more effective than it had been, allowing the astronomer to make much more detailed observations, including viewing craters on the moon, sunspots, and four of the moons of Jupiter. Galileo was a devout Catholic, and in fact traveled to Rome to show the moons of Jupiter to the Jesuit Collegio Romano as evidence of the Copernican heliocentric model. The Church rejected Galileo’s views, and eventually found him highly suspected of heresy and placed under house arrest.
Sir Isaac Newton, in addition to his many other accomplishments, was an influential astronomer. Many of his observations led him to develop some of his grand theories of motion, gravitation, and physical dynamics. Edmond Halley, an 18th century astronomer, conceived of a theory of orbits for comets. He used this theory to predict a comet in 1682, which would eventually be named in his honor, as Halley’s Comet.
One of the fundamental historical distinctions of an astronomer is his or her reliance on observation to come up with theories. It is likely for this reason that the astronomer is such a romantic figure for most people. The heavens at night are awe inspiring for most, and a lifetime spent gazing into them and trying to plumb their mysteries is one that appeals to many. Although the romantic ideal of a wizened old man with his eye to a telescope may no longer truly exist, it has nonetheless inspired generation after generation to become excited about science.
In the modern age, two wonderful things have happened for the field of astronomy: quality has gone up, and price has gone down. This has allowed for a whole new wave of astronomers to crop up, but these are often amateurs. With a relatively small investment now, anyone can be an astronomer. In fact, some important discoveries over the past two decades have been by those who are far from professional astronomers. As technology continues to improve, it is likely that the role the amateur astronomer plays in identification of celestial phenomena with only increase.
Typically, I find your "What is a..." posts relevant and interesting. However, with this one there is very little said about actual astronomers today, although your other articles of this style focus on that idea. I appreciate the history but it's not helpful if you're really trying to find out information about the field of modern astronomy.