By Luke Carothers

There has been no shortage of works throughout human history that try to define the relationship between humans and the stars in the night sky.  Our earliest ancestors looked up at the stars and saw patterns that reflected their own lives, crafting stories to understand the worlds contained in the sky above them.  As soon as we developed the technical capacity for doing so, we erected monuments that mirrored the positions of the sun, moon, and stars.  At the same time Stonehenge was being built in England, between 3000 and 1520 BCE, ziggurats were serving a similar purpose across the world in Babylonia.  Still further away, in modern day Mexico, the Maya people utilized a dome-shaped structure called El Caracol for the same purposes.  

These early construction projects are exemplary of our ancient need to understand the sky above us.  While there is no evidence to suggest that these ancient structures served any scientific purpose, they were able to reflect the sky above us in a way that our ancestors could better understand, bringing what once must have seemed so very far away just a little closer.  

Later in history, advances in not only astrology but also engineering and construction allowed civilizations to further advance their study of the heavens.  By the early 9th century CE, several early scientific tools had been developed to help accurately measure the positions of heavenly bodies.  The Islamic world was at the forefront of these developments, with several notable observatories being erected in Damascus and Baghdad.  Perhaps the most notable of these early Islamic observatories is the Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Although the exact date is unknown, construction on the Ulugh Beg Observatory began some time during the 1400s CE when Ulugh Beg, the city’s ruler, invited a number of notable astronomers, mathematicians, and architects to help design and construct the structure.  Built on a hill 21 meters above the ground, the observatory contains a cylindrical structure with a height of roughly 33 meters that contained a sextant.  The weight and height of the sextant compromised the strength of the brick walls, so half of the sextant was constructed below ground, reducing the height of the building and strain on its walls.  Using these architectural and astronomical advancements, Ulugh Beg was able to correct several mistakes made by the legendary astronomer Ptolemy.  

Our quest to understand the heavens was further aided in the 17th century CE when Galileo developed the first optical telescope.  Further developments led to the first observatories being built with telescopes, with their motion being entirely limited to movement along a single plane.  By aligning this movement along the local meridian, astronomers could time the passing of stars based on the Earth’s rotation, greatly improving the accuracy of position measurements.  

Not satisfied, humanity again sought answers from the stars.  By the 20th century, telescope technology afforded astronomers a much broader and clearer view of the night sky.  In 1916, the Canadian government started work on the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia.  When completed, the observatory housed a groundbreaking reflecting telescope nearly constructed on an asymmetrical mount, giving it access to most of the night sky with movement being provided by mechanical ball bearings.  This groundbreaking telescope weighs nearly 42 tonnes and is 1.83-meters in length.  To house this telescope, a cylindrical construction was topped by a domed roof with arched slat openings to allow access to the sky.    

Since its completion, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory has hosted many of the greatest achievements in our quest to understand the stars.  For example, this structure allowed Canadian astronomer John Stanley Plaskett to demonstrate that the Milky Way is rotating, while also accurately measuring its size, mass, and rotational speed.  Achievements such as these are significant steps in the evolution of our human quest for understanding.

Our earliest ancestors looked at the heavens and studied them, coming to an understanding that the movement of heavenly bodies has a definite impact on our lives.  These generations knew the heavens shared some patterns with the natural world, and they constructed structures– temples, sundials, stone markers–as well as stories to make sense of what patterns they found.  As our understanding of engineering, architecture, and construction grew, we paired those pursuits with our need to understand the stars.  Throughout history, from our earliest ancestors to now–in every part of the world–we seek to utilize our understanding of design and technology to know more about the worlds contained in the sky above us.  Although we no longer color our exploration and knowledge of the stars with tales of gods and heroes, our fascination is still enraptured in the belief that the stars will tell us what is next for humanity.  Our ancestors looked to the stars to answer their questions about the next harvest, war, or migration.  In the same way, we now look at the stars to answer our questions about exploring and inhabiting new planets and finding other intelligences that share our yearning for the stars.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

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