Document Type

Thesis

Degree

Master of Arts

Major

History

Date of Defense

4-22-2011

Graduate Advisor

Kevin J. Fernlund

Committee

Kevin Fernlund

John Gillingham III

Minsoo Kang

Abstract

The astronomical observatory has existed since ancient times and has served a number of public causes—religious, astrological, practical, and, more recently, scientific. In this thesis, I show how the observatory underwent three major transitions, beginning with its “institutionalization” in the thirteenth century, with the founding of the Maragha Observatory. I discuss how the Maragha observatory (located in the northwestern part of Persia) became a model for future observatories, including the Mount Wilson Observatory. The Maragha Observatory produced a revolutionary school of thought known as the “Maragha School.” This school marked a sharp departure from Ptolemaic Greek astronomy. I argue that Copernicus should be seen as belonging to this school as its last and most known follower. The observatory went through a second transition with the introduction of the telescope. The telescope opened new channels of inquiry. Galileo’s observations of our moon's surface, sunspots, the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus, started a race to improve the telescope in order to obtain ever higher resolution images. The third transition occurred when astronomers became concerned with questions having little or no practical use. This era, which began in the nineteenth century and extends into our own time, was defined by the quest for pure knowledge. It occurred as a result of major improvements in instrumentation and with development of spectroscopy, which gave birth to the field of astrophysics.

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