Asked in AstronomyAncient HistoryImprobable History
Who is the most ancient astronomer?
November 12, 2009 5:33PM
His name was Ogg. He lived with his four women and his fire in a
cave in what is now central Turkey, about
150 miles south of modern-day Samsun. Ogg had an inquisitive nature and an active imagination, which put him
head and shoulders above most of his neighbors in the local scientific community. Early on, he made the connection
between the fire and the occasional terrible uncomfortable burning sensation in the soles of his feet. He was able
to teach his neighbors to avoid walking on the fire; that earned him the respect of folks throughout the hillside,
and they regarded him as a guy who really knew his dung, as they used to say back then.
Perhaps his greatest
contribution to the total body of scientific knowledge of the time came from his astronomical observations.
It was common knowledge that on most nights, if one ventured some distance from the mouth of one's cave
and leaned one's head back, one would experience myriad spots of light before one's eyes, and that the
sensation could only be mitigated by returning quickly to the cave. The conventional wisdom held that
the spots were the result of the pressure of darkness upon the eyes, and that excessive exposure
to them would lead to blindness. Reasoning along these lines, it was natural to arrive at the conclusion
that if one did observe the spots of light, he had best get his tail back to the cave as soon as possible
to avoid permanent damage. But strangely, most of the population continued to spend extended periods
outside the cave, apparently ignoring the danger. Today, we understand that this apparent contradiction
between the conventional wisdom and the lack of any behavior modification was due simply to the common
additional knowledge that the cave was full of women and children, and even primitive man usually made the
instinctive selection of blindness as preferable to aggravation and chronic gastric reflux. But we digress.
Be that as it may have been (and there is considerable documentation to prove that it was) Ogg was
struck by the fact that although, in practice, most of his neighbors were virtually addicted to long hours
outside at night ignoring the points of light in their brain, the actual incidence of blindness among the
adult population was rather low. His inquisitive nature caused him to ponder the nagging question of
whether the conventional wisdom concerning the lights might in fact be hogwash. He designed and
carried out two experiments which challenged and totally transformed the conventional wisdom, laid the
groundwork for modern observational astronomy, and earned him his place in the prehistory of that science.
Firstly, on one dark and clear night while the women and children were away visiting at the cave of an ancestor,
Ogg threw fresh moist dung on the fire, causing the fire to die. His cave became as dark on the inside as
it was outside. Battling the rising terror in his heart, Ogg stood in the mouth of the cave, and seemingly
without regard for his personal safety, performed simple harmonic motion with his head, turning it rhythmically
to and fro, this way and that, back and forth, gazing always upward, first outside the cave, then inside it.
Excitedly, he noticed that when he gazed up and outward, the lights appeared, but when he gazed up and
INWARD, they disappeared ! Standing there in the cave's foyer, he repeated his observation five, ten,
a hundred times, (he didn't know that, for mathematics were still centuries in the future), and every time
the result was the same. He could turn off the lights at will. As deftly as Newton did with the apple, Ogg
made the great leap from simple observation to daring hypothesis ... that the lights were not in the eyes
or the brain of the observer, and that they were tiny real fires, which burned up above ones head whenever
the really BIG fire fell down into the ground. In the finest true manner of the scientific method, Ogg sought to
test his hypothesis, by testing its predictions. He reasoned that if the tiny fires were real and not optical
artifacts, then multiple observers might see the same fires!
His second great experiment, designed to test
that prediction, was long delayed because, just as so often happens in the lives of modern day investigators,
the vicissitudes and mundane demands of everyday life took precedence over his intellectual pursuits:
The women and children were due to return in a couple of days, and there was now no fire in the cave.
As much as Ogg was torn, he was smart enough to know which side of his bread held the butter, and to
recognize the essential true priorities. The details of the next month are secondary to our main thread of
scientific investigation, and we need not presume to command the reader's kind attention to retell them.
It need only be said that as soon as Ogg had created new fire in the cave, got out of the doghouse, and
won the women's permission to call a bunch of his buddies over to stand around outside at night and
look up, he was ready to test a prediction of his hypothesis and, he dared to hope, confirm it, and win
the title of Ogg's Theory, or even Ogg's Law. Just as so often happens with pure research to this day,
Ogg could hardly have imagined the torrent of secondary benefits that would derive from his simple
experiment, benefits that were totally unrelated in any way to the experimental protocol or to its
findings, but which proved crucial to every facet of society.
In order to test whether multiple observers
perceived the same myriad lights, a system of signals had to be invented and agreed, to swap descriptions
among the observers, in sufficient detail to establish whether or not the objects described were the
same objects. On that night, outside a cave in central Turkey, with Ogg directing a motley mob of
unruly post-docs and undergrads, signals were invented ... different patterns of grunts, squeaks,
clicks, belches ... to connote the concepts of 'up', 'left', 'north', 'right', 'above', 'get off my foot', 'down',
'next to', 'near', 'west', 'far', and all of the other physical and spatial concepts that make today's civilized
life possible. The results of the experiment were clear and undebatable. Everyone saw the same tiny fires
above, proving that the lights were external to the observer, and by extension, that darkness is probably
not a major source of eyestrain, and that it was unnecessary to fear blindness. (Of course, there were
those who could never accept the scientific demonstration. They were the ones who held that the lights
were the result of mass hysteria, that they originated on a secret Hollywood sound-stage, and that
a vast secret network operated by aliens from another hillside existed for the purpose of causing everyone to
go blind so that they could come over and take over our hillside. These folks were kindly tolerated. Ogg
conceded that the secret network was at least half-vast, and he encouraged them to keep looking up until
they needed glasses.)
But our story doesn't end here. Going out on the porch and looking at the tiny fires
became all the rage, and swept the entire hillside. (We must remember that there were very few of the folks
in Ogg's time who owned DVD players or computer games, and those who did had no place to plug them in.)
Everyone was outside the cave of a warm evening, looking up, chatting, sipping tea, sharing impressions
of the tiny fires over their head. Everyone learned to recognize the patterns, and to look for the same ones
night after night. To help remember the patterns, people gave the patterns names, imagined them as
pictures of familiar objects, people, and animals, and told stories of them to the children.
the constellations, the Zodiac, and the pseudo-doodoo of Astrology. All this from the most ancient astronomer,
the man they called Ogg, sitting and "rocking" outside a humble cave in central Turkey who, had you been there,
you could have heard him exclaim as you drove out of sight, "Keep lookin up, y'all", and to all a "Iyi geceler".