First image of black hole taught us what schools didn’t: Astronomy is more than Europe


An international team of scientists unveiled last month the first image of a black hole: An initiative that involved the work of hundreds of scientists from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, through eight different observatories around the world.

But this is no oddity: Much of modern astronomy involves a similar level of global collaboration. And even historically, the study of the heavens has been a global effort.

This context needs to be incorporated into how we approach the study of astronomy in our educational institutions, for two reasons.

It is absolutely imperative to acknowledge contributions from all parts of society and the world, for one, and shed the colonial Eurocentrism that is deeply entrenched in our education. But also, it is essential to dispel notions about any field of science being individualistic or nationalistic in its essence.

Night sky through the ages

Astronomy is widely considered the oldest scientific endeavour. Astronomical observations were a significant part of religious and agricultural life across cultures for centuries.

Seasonal observations, such as the motion of the Sun in the sky, solstices, and equinoxes were celebrated as festivals with mythologies built around them. For example, in Greek mythology, the September equinox marks the return of a goddess to her husband, while it ushers in a harvest festival in China, and a time to remember ancestors in Japan.

They also helped mould and shape essential civilisational practices like agriculture and timekeeping.

There are various examples of excellent observations from different pars of the world.

Some of the oldest records of astronomy come from ancient Mesopotamia that was located in West Asia. The Mesopotamians performed detailed observations of phenomena in the sky, from comets to eclipses.

The division of the sky into constellations and zodiacs emerged from ancient Sumerian practices and was passed down to the ancient Greeks. Mayans accurately calculated the length of the year, the extent of the lunar month accurate to three decimal places, and the conjunction of planets accurate to within a day to the value from modern observations.

In the 11th century, precisely 1054 AD, the Native Americans and the Chinese observed and recorded a supernova event whose remnant is today known as Crab Nebula.

Another popular example of the diverse history of astronomy comes from Australia. The indigenous cultures of Australia, being isolated from the rest of the world, developed astronomy independently, with the wonderful dark skies of the outbacks allowing many fascinating discoveries.

They not only identified stars in various constellations, they envisioned ‘negative constellations’, formed by opaque clouds of dust among the bright stars of the night sky. The concept of negative constellations is unique to the southern hemisphere — the only other culture where a similar concept is known is that of the Incas, who identified some dark patches of the sky as animals.

They also discovered the variable nature of bright stars in the sky, well before modern astronomers. Australians even reportedly recorded the eruption from the blue variable star in the Eta Carinae binary system in the 19th century.

Similar stories can be found in India too. Although the oldest written records can be traced back to the Vedas, even older knowledge is preserved in oral traditions. By the time of Aryabhata in the 5th-6th Century AD, the Vedic and Indo-Greek astronomy was written down.

Aryabhata calculated the circumference of the Earth accurately, and suggested that the moon’s light is reflected sunlight. In subsequent centuries, the planetary motions were calculated to high precision by early scientists of the Indian subcontinent.

Many of these texts were circulated and translated across the world and profoundly influenced European, and in-turn, modern astronomy.

Astronomy in India today

Although the history of Indian astronomy from Aryabhata onwards has been studied in detail, the details of native astronomical sciences from the preceding years is largely unknown.

Many tribal communities in India have studied the night sky, and developed mythologies around it independent of the mainstream astronomy passed down through Eurocentric education.

Many such native stories, and, in turn, observations, come from a time when the skies looked different due to Earth’s precession, which is the ‘cyclic wobbling in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation with a period of 25,772 years’.

Their stories around astronomy tell us not only about their observations of the night sky from ancient times, but also inform us about their culture, and their relation with the sky and Earth. Speculation has it that multiple records of observations of supernova events, including possibly the oldest recorded supernova, have been found in rock art discovered in the Kashmir region.

The vast history of astronomy is a mostly-neglected topic in the school and university curriculum. And even when there is some mention of it, the history usually begins with the ancient Greeks, jumps to Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo, and follows the discoveries of European astronomers in the subsequent centuries.

The explorations made by other cultures are generally overlooked.

This is partly because of a lack of knowledge and research into different cultures and their scientific histories, and partly because of a historical rejection or ignorance about non-western ways of doing and recording science, such as stories, mythologies, poetry and literature.

This creates a problem at several layers: First, due credit is not given to people for discoveries made by them. Second, it feeds the colonial attitude by propagating the narrative that noteworthy contemporary scientific findings come only from European cultures.

In this light, it is important for curriculum designers in India to delve deeper into the multicultural history of astronomy.

Although Eurocentrism in science is an issue that requires tackling by education systems across the world, we should not simply covet affirmation in western curricula and rather lead the change.

In India, it is imperative to acquaint students with the development of astronomy in the Indian classical and pre-colonial era by presenting the details about historical observations, instruments, and methodologies to understand the contributions made by locals.

Even more crucial is to detach this knowledge from the jingoistic notion of ‘Indians invented everything’ that often creeps into public discourse, by illustrating the historically-global nature of astronomy and the sciences.

Preserving cultures

A significant barrier to wider knowledge about different cultures’ contribution is the lack of readily-available information. While there has been significant research in studying ancient Indian texts for their scientific knowledge, the information lies catching dust in old colonial-era books or in science journals. This knowledge needs to be taken outside the classroom through active outreach efforts.

We must also strive to document, preserve, communicate, and celebrate the traditions of astronomy from the tribal communities of India before they are lost to time and modernisation.

Here, the government and funding agencies should play a critical role in funding and promoting research into ethnoastronomy, creating programmes for recording and preserving tribals’ languages, stories and mythologies.

The study of ethnoastronomy and archaeoastronomy provides a window not only into astronomical traditions, but also the socio-cultural and historical makeup of various groups, and we should celebrate the scientific and cultural evolution of humanity.

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