Important Dates and Discoveries
Cosmological Theories Through History
The Universe By Numbers
Glossary of Terms
A Few Random Facts
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A brief chronological listing of some of the most important discoveries in cosmology, astronomy and physics, from ancient Babylon, India and Greece, right up to the 20th Century. Learn how some of the essential concepts and laws of modern physics which are mentioned in this website (and the earlier ideas out of which they grew) developed in a historical context. For a slightly different perspective, also see the section on Cosmological Theories Through History.
For convenience I have split it into sections:
- 20th -16th Century B.C. - Ancient Babylonian tablets show knowledge of the distinction between the moving planets and the “fixed” stars, and the recognition that the movement of planets are regular and periodic.
- 15th - 12th Century B.C. - The Hindu Rigveda of ancient India describes the origin of the universe in which a “cosmic egg” or Brahmanda, containing the Sun, Moon, planets and the whole universe, expands out of a single concentrated point before subsequently collapsing again, reminiscent of the much later Big Bang and oscillating universe theories.
- 5th Century B.C. - The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras becomes arguably the first to formulate a kind of molecular theory of matter, and to regard the physical universe as subject to the rule of rationality or reason.
- 5th Century B.C. - The Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus found the school of Atomism, which holds that the universe is composed of very small, indivisible and indestructible building blocks known as atoms, which then form different combinations and shapes in an infinite void.
- 4th Century B.C. - The Greek philosopher Aristotle describes a geocentric universe in which the fixed, spherical Earth is at the centre, surrounded by concentric celestial spheres of planets and stars. Although he portrays the universe as finite in size, he stresses that it exists unchanged and static throughout eternity.
- 4th Century B.C. - The Greek philosopher Heraclides proposes that the apparent daily motion of the stars is created by the rotation of the Earth on its axis once a day, and that the Sun annually circles a central Earth, while the other planets orbit the Sun (a geocentric model with heliocentric aspects).
- 3rd Century B.C. - The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece assert a kind of “island universe” in which a finite cosmos is surrounded by an infinite void (similar in principle to a galaxy).
- 3rd Century B.C. - The Greek mathematician and geographer Eratosthenes proved that the Earth was round, and made a remarkably accurate calculation of its circumference and its tilt (as well as devising a system of latitude and longitude, and, possibly, estimating the distance of the Earth from the Sun).
- 3rd Century B.C. - The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos is the first to present an explicit argument for a heliocentric model of the Solar System, placing the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of the known universe. He describes the Earth as rotating daily on its axis and revolving annually about the Sun in a circular orbit, along with a sphere of fixed stars.
- 2nd Century B.C. - The Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicea makes the first measurement of the precession of the equinoxes, and compiles the first star catalogue (in which he proposes our modern system of apparent magnitudes). He also improves on the Solar System model of Apollonius of Perga, in which an eccentric circle carries around a smaller circle (an epicycle), which in turn carries around a planet.
- 2nd Century B.C. - The Hellenistic astronomer and philosopher Seleucus of Seleucia supports Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory, and links the tides to the influence of the Moon.
- 2nd Century A.D. - The Roman-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) describes a geocentric model, largely based on Aristotelian ideas, in which the planets and the rest of the universe orbit about a stationary Earth in circular epicycles, which becomes the scientific orthodoxy for nearly two millennia (essentially until Copernicus in the 16th Century). He also details the complex motions of the stars and planetary paths using equants, allowing astronomers to predict the positions of the planets.
- 5th Century A.D. - The Indian astonomer and mathematician Aryabhata proposes that the Earth turns on its own axis, and describes elliptical orbits around the Sun, which some have interpreted as heliocentrism.
- 6th Century A.D. - The Christian philosopher John Philoponus of Alexandria argues against the ancient Greek notion of an infinite past, and is perhaps the first commentator to argue that the universe is finite in time and therefore had a beginning.
- 7th Century - The Indian astronomer Brahmagupta, a follower of the heliocentric theory of the Solar System earlier developed by Aryabhata, recognizes gravity as a force of attraction in his "The Opening of the Universe" of 628, in which he describes a force of attraction between the Sun and the Earth.
- 9th Century - The Muslim astronomer Ja'far ibn Muhammad Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi developes a planetary model which some have interpreted as heliocentric model.
- 9th - 11th Century - Early Muslim and Jewish theologians such as Al-Kindi, Saadia Gaon and Al-Ghazali offer logical arguments supporting a finite universe.
- 11th Century - The Arab polymath Alhazen (also known as Ibn al-Haytham) becomes the first to apply the scientific method to astronomy.
- 11th Century - The Persian astronomer Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni describes the Earth's gravitation as the attraction of all things towards the centre of the Earth, and hypothesizes that the Earth turns daily on its axis and annually around the Sun.
- 11th Century - The Persian polymath Omar Khayyam demonstrates that the universe is not moving around Earth, but that the Earth revolves on its axis, bringing into view different star constellations throughout the night and day. He also calculated the solar year as 365.24219858156 days (correct to six decimal places).
- 14th Century - The Arab astronomer and engineer Ibn al-Shatir (of the Iranian Maragha school of astronomy) refines and improves the accuracy of the geocentric Ptolemaic model and develops the first accurate model of lunar motion.
- 15th Century - The Persian astronomer and mathematician Ali Qushji rejects the Aristotelian notion of a stationary Earth in favour of a rotating Earth.
- 15th Century - Somayaji Nilakantha of the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics in southern India develops a computational system for a partially heliocentric planetary model in which Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn orbit the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth.
- 1543 - The Polish astronomer and polymath Nicolaus Copernicus (adapting the geocentric Maragha model of Ibn al-Shatir to meet the requirements of the ancient heliocentric universe of Aristarchus), proposes that the Earth rotates on its axis once daily and travels around the Sun once a year, and demonstrates that the motions of celestial objects can be explained without putting the Earth at rest in the centre of the universe. His Copernican Principle (that the Earth is not in a central, specially favoured position) and its implications (that celestial bodies obey physical laws identical to those on Earth) first establishes cosmology as a science rather than a branch of metaphysics, and marks a shift away from anthropocentrism.
- 1576 - The English astronomer Thomas Digges popularizes Copernicus’ ideas and also extends them by positing the existence of a multitude of stars extending to infinity, rather than Copernicus’ narrow band of fixed stars.
- 1584 - The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno takes the Copernican Principle a stage further by suggesting that even the Solar System is not the centre of the universe, but rather a relatively insignificant star system among an infinite multitude of others.
- 1587 - The Danish nobleman and astronomer Tycho Brahe develops a kind of hybrid of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models, a geo-heliocentric system similar to that of Somayaji Nilakantha, now known as the Tychonic system. This involves a static Earth at the centre of the universe, around which revolve the Sun and the Moon, with the other five planets revolving around the Sun.
- 1605 - The German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler establishes his three Laws of Planetary Motion, mathematical laws that describe the motion of planets in the Solar System, including the ground-breaking idea that the planets follow elliptical, not circular, paths around the Sun. Newton later used them to deduce his own Laws of Motion and his Law of Universal Gravitation.
- 1610 - The Italian mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei develops an astronomical telescope powerful enough to indentify moons orbiting Jupiter, sunspots on the Sun and the different phases of Mercury, all of which are instrumental in convincing the scientific community of the day that the heliocentric Copernican model of the Solar System is superior to the geocentric Ptolemiac model.
- 1632 - Galileo Galilei first describes the Principle of Relativity, the idea that the fundamental laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames and that, purely by observing the outcome of mechanical experiments, one cannot distinguish a state of rest from a state of constant velocity.
- 1633 - The French philosopher René Descartes outlines a model of a static, infinite universe made up of tiny “corpuscles” of matter, a viewpoint not dissimilar to ancient Greek atomism. Descartes’ universe shares many elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s later model, although Descartes’ vacuum of space is not empty but composed of huge swirling whirlpools of ethereal or fine matter, producing what would later be called gravitational effects.
- 1638 - Galileo Galilei demonstrates that unequal weights would fall with the same finite speed in a vacuum, and that their time of descent is independent of their mass. Thus, freely falling bodies, heavy or light, have the same constant acceleration, due to the force of gravity.
- 1675 - The English physicist Sir Isaac Newton argues that light is composed of particles, which are refracted by acceleration toward a denser medium, and posits the existence of “aether” to transmit forces between the particles.
- 1687 - Sir Isaac Newton publishes his “Principia”, which describes an infinite, steady state, static, universe, in which matter on the large scale is uniformly distributed. In the work, he establishes the three Laws of Motion (“a body persists its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force”; “force equals mass times acceleration”; and “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) and the Law of Universal Gravitation (that every particle in the universe attracts every other particle according to an inverse-square formula) that were not to be improved upon for more than two hundred years. He is credited with introducing the idea that the motion of objects in the heavens (such as planets, the Sun and the Moon) can be described by the same set of physical laws as the motion of objects on the ground (like cannon balls and falling apples).
- 1734 - The Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg proposes a hierarchical universe, still generally based on a Newtonian static universe, but with matter clustered on ever larger scales of hierarchy, endlessly being recycled. This idea of a hierarchical universe and the “nebular hypothesis” were developed further (independently) by Thomas Wright (1750) and Immanuel Kant (1775).
- 1761 - The Swiss physicist Johann Heinrich Lambert supports Wright and Kant’s hierarchical universe and nebular hypothesis, and also hypothesizes that the stars near the Sun are part of a group which travel together through the Milky Way, and that there are many such groupings or star systems throughout the galaxy.
- 1783 - The amateur British astronomer John Michell proposes the theoretical idea of an object massive enough that its gravity would prevent even light from escaping (which has since become known as a black hole). He realizes that such an object would not be directly visible, but could be identified by the motions of a companion star if it was part of a binary system. A similar idea was independently proposed by the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1795.
- 1789 - The French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier definitively states the Law of Conservation of Mass (although others had previously expressed similar ideas, including the ancient Greek Epicurus, the medieval Persian Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and the 18th Century scientists Mikhail Lomonosov, Joseph Black, Henry Cavendish and Jean Rey), and identifies (albeit slightly incorrectly) 23 elements which he claims can not be broken down into simpler substances.
- 1803 - The English scientist Thomas Young demonstrates, in his famous double-slit experiment, the interference of light and concludes that light is a wave, not a particle as Sir Isaac Newton had ruled.
- 1805 - The English chemist John Dalton develops his atomic theory, proposing that each chemical element is composed of atoms of a single unique type, and that, though they are both immutable and indestructible, they can combine to form more complex structures.
- 1839 - The English scientist Michael Faraday concludes from his work on electromagnetism that, contrary to scientific opinion of the time, the divisions between the various kinds of electricity are illusory. He also establishes that magnetism can affect rays of light, and that there is an underlying relationship between the two phenomena.
- 1861 - The French scientist Louis Pasteur’s experiments show that organisms such as bacteria and fungi do not appear of their own accord in sterile nutrient-rich media, suggesting that the long-held acceptance of the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter may be incorrect.
- 1864 - The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrates that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves at the constant speed of light and that electricity, magnetism and even light are all manifestations of electromagnetism. He collected together laws originally derived by Carl Friedrich Gauss, Michael Faraday and André-Marie Ampère into a unified and consistent theory (often known as Maxwell’s Equations).
- 1896 - The French physicist Henri Becquerel discovers that certain kinds of matter emit radiation of their own accord (radioactivity).
- 1897 - The British physicist J. J. Thomson discovers the electron, the first known sub-atomic particle.
- 1900 - The German physicist Max Planck suggests, while describing his law of black body radiation, that light may be emitted in discrete frequencies or “quanta”, and establishes the value of the Planck constant to describe the sizes of these quanta. This is often regarded as marking the birth of quantum physics.
- 1905 - The German physicist Albert Einstein shows how the photoelectric effect is caused by absorption of quanta of light (or photons), an important step in understanding the quantum nature of light and electrons, and a strong influence on the formation of the concept of wave-particle duality in quantum theory.
- 1905 - Albert Einstein publishes his Special Theory of Relativity, in which he generalizes Galileo's Principle of Relativity (that all uniform motion is relative, and that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest) from mechanics to all the laws of physics, and incorporates the principle that the speed of light is the same for all inertial observers regardless of the state of motion of the source.
- 1905 - In a separate paper, Albert Einstein derives the concept of mass-energy equivalence (that any mass has an associated energy) and his famous E = mc2 equation.
- 1907 - The German mathematician Hermann Minkowski realizes that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity can be best understood in a four-dimensional space, which he calls “space-time” and in which time and space are not separate entities but intermingled in a four-dimensional space.
- 1911 - The New Zealand chemist Ernest Rutherford interprets the 1909 experiments of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, establishing for the first time the “planetary model” of the atom, where a central nucleus is circled by a number of tiny electrons like planets around a sun.
- 1915 - The German physicist Karl Schwarzschild provides the first exact solution to Einstein’s field equations of general relativity (even before Einstein publishes the theory) for the limited case of a single spherical non-rotating mass, which leads to the “Schwarzschild radius” which defines the size of the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole.
- 1916 - Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity, in which he unifies special relativity and Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, and describes gravity as a property of the curvature of four-dimensional space-time. Objects (including planets, like the Earth, for instance) fly freely under their own inertia through warped space-time, following curved paths because this is the shortest possible path in warped space.
- 1916 - The Austrian physicist Ludwig Flamm examines Schwarzschild’s solution to Einstein’s field equations and points out that the equations theoretically allow for some kind of invisible connection between two distinct regions of space-time (later to become known as a “wormhole”).
- 1917 - Albert Einstein publishes a paper introducing the “cosmological constant” into the General Theory of Relativity in an attempt to model the behaviour of the entire universe, an idea he later called his “greatest blunder” but which, in the light of recent discoveries, is beginning to look remarkably prescient.
- 1919 - Ernest Rutherford is credited with the discovery of the proton when he notices the signatures of hydrogen nuclei when alpha particles are shot into nitrogen gas. In these experiments, he also became the first person to transmute one element into another (nitrogen into oxygen) through a deliberate man-made nuclear reaction.
- 1919 - The English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington uses his measurements of an eclipse to confirm the deflection of starlight by the gravity of the Sun as predicted in Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
- 1919 - The German mathematician Theodor Kaluza proposes the addition of a fifth dimension to the General Theory of Relativity, a precursor to much later superstring theory attempts to combine general relativity and quantum theory. The Swedish physicist Oskar Klein independently proposes a similar idea in 1926.
- 1922 - The Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin hypothesizes that life on Earth began in a “primeval soup” of matter and water between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago, as chemical reactions produced small organic molecules from substances present in the atmosphere, which were then organized by chance into the more complex organic molecules that are the basis of life.
- 1922 - The Russian cosmologist and mathematician Alexander Friedmann discovers the expanding universe solution to Einstein’s general relativity field equations. The solution for a universe with positive curvature (spherical space) results in the universe expanding for a time and then contracting due to the pull of its gravity, in a perpetual cycle of Big Bang followed by Big Crunch now known as the oscillating universe theory.
- 1925 - The American astronomer Edwin Hubble proves conclusively that nebulae such as the Andromeda Nebula are much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and are in fact entire galaxies outside our own, thus settling the “Great Debate” about the nature of spiral nebulae and the size of the universe.
- 1925 - The Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli establishes an important quantum mechanical principle known as the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that no two identical fermions (such as electrons) may occupy the same quantum state simultaneously.
- 1926 - The German physicist Werner Heisenberg formulates his uncertainty principle, that the values of certain pairs of variables cannot both be known exactly (i.e. the more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other can be known), a central concept in quantum physics.
- 1926 - The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger publishes what is now known as the Schrödinger Equation, a central and revolutionary achievement in quantum physics. Later, in 1935, he proposes the famous “Schrödinger's Cat” thought experiment or paradox concerning quantum superposition, decoherence and entanglement.
- 1927 - The Belgian Roman Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître proposes (even before Hubble’s corroborating evidence) that the universe is expanding, followed in 1931 by the first definitive version of what has become known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
- 1928 - The British physicist Paul Dirac provides a description of the “spin” of elementary particles such as electrons which is consistent with both the principles of quantum mechanics and the Special Theory of Relativity, and predicts the existence of antimatter.
- 1929 - Edwin Hubble definitively shows that all the galaxies in the universe are moving away from us, according to a formula which has become known as Hubble’s Law, showing that the universe is not in fact static, but expanding.
- 1932 - The English physicist James Chadwick discovers the neutron; the American physicist Carl Anderson identifies the positron (the anti-electron which had been predicted by Paul Dirac a few years earlier); and the British physicist John Cockcroft and the Irish physicist Ernest Walton succeed in transmuting lithium into helium and other chemical elements using high energy protons, popularly referred to as “splitting the atom”.
- 1934 - The Swiss-American astronomer Fritz Zwicky and the German-American Walter Baade coin the term “supernova” and hypothesize (correctly) that they are the transition of normal stars into neutron stars, as well as the origin of cosmic rays. Zwicky also uses the virial theorem to deduce the existence of unseen matter (what is now called dark matter) in the universe, as well as the effect of gravitational lensing.
- 1935 - Albert Einstein and the Israeli physicist Nathan Rosen achieve a solution to Einstein’s field equations known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge (also known as a Lorentzian wormhole or a Schwarzschild wormhole).
- 1935 - The Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar establishes the “Chandrasekhar limit” of about 1.4 solar masses, above which a star must continue to collapse into a neutron star rather than settling down into a white dwarf.
- 1939 - The discovery of nuclear fission results from the Berlin experiments of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Fritz Strassmann and Otto Frisch.
- 1948 - The English astronomer Fred Hoyle and the Austrians Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi propose a non-standard cosmology (i.e. one opposed to the standard Big Bang model) known as the steady state universe. This theory describes a universe that has no beginning and no end, and that expands continuously, but in which new matter is constantly created and inserted as it expands in order to maintain a constant density, so that its overall look does not change over time.
- 1953 - The experiments of the American biochemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey (known as the Miller-Urey experiments) demonstrate the feasibility of producing basic organic monomers such as amino acids from a highly reduced mixture of gases, in an attempt to back up Alexander Oparin’s hypotheses on the origins of life on Earth.
- 1963 - The New Zealand mathematician Roy Kerr discovers a solution to Einstein’s general relativity field equations which describes a spinning black hole, and argues that these are likely to be common objects throughout the universe.
- 1965 - The American astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discover the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation, considered by most to be the best evidence for the Big Bang model of the universe (and effectively disproving Hoyle et al’s steady state universe theory).
- 1966 - The Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov outlines the three conditions necessary for the observed matter-antimatter imbalance in the universe to be possible, and hypothesizes about singularities linking parallel universes.
- 1969 - The Murchison meteorite falls on Australia, revealing significant quantities of organic compounds and amino acids (the basis of early life on Earth) which originated in outer space.
- 1970 - The English physicist Stephen Hawking provides, along with Roger Penrose, theorems regarding singularities in space-time, indicating that singularities and black holes are actually a fairly generic feature of general relativity. He also predicts that black holes should in theory emit radiation (known today as Hawking radiation) until they eventually exhaust their energy and evaporate.
- 1980 - The American physicist Alan Guth proposes a model of the universe based on the Big Bang, but incorporating a short, early period of exponential cosmic inflation in order to solve the horizon and flatness problems of the standard Big Bang model.
- 1980 - The invention of the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, by the German Gerd Binnig and the Swiss Heinrich Rohrer, shows visually for the first time that matter is composed of spherical atoms stacked row on row.
- 1983 - The Russian-American physicist Andrei Linde develops Guth’s cosmic inflation idea further with his chaotic inflation (or eternal inflation) theory, which sees our universe as just one of many “bubble universes” that have developed as part of a multiverse.
- 1984-6 - A series of important discoveries in string theory leads to the “first superstring revolution”, and it is first realized that string theory might be capable of describing all elementary particles as well as the interactions between them.
- 1995 - The American theoretical physicist Edward Witten and others develop M-theory, and spark a flurry of new research in string theory, sometimes called the “second superstring revolution”.
- 1998 - Observations of distant Type 1a supernovas, both by the American astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter and by the Australians Nick Suntzeff and Brian Schmidt, indicate that they are actually further away from the Earth than expected, suggesting an accelerating expansion of the universe.
- 2002 - The American physicist Paul Steinhardt and South African-British physicist Neil Turok propose another variation of the inflating universe known as the cyclic model, developed using state-of-the-art M-theory, superstring theory and brane cosmology, which involves an inflating universe expanding and contracting in cycles.
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Main Topics |
Important Dates and Discoveries |
Important Scientists |
Cosmological Theories |
The Universe By Numbers |
Glossary of Terms |
A Few Random Facts |
© 2009 Luke Mastin