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Orrary and clocks (c) RCarr

Orrary and Clocks taken at the Museum of the History of Science

So much for keeping the blog going every week, but life rather does take over at times.

One of the nicer things that have happened is that I had a few days away in Oxford with my partner for his birthday week. We visited a lot of very interesting places and one of them was the Museum of the History of Science http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/ which, with all the brass instruments and the astronomical tools from both the Christian and Islamic world, was right up my street.

OK so what is this to do with an astrology blog I hear you ask.  Well, we arrived just at the beginning of a guided tour, which we didn’t join in with as we both like to wander around, have a look and then give the curators something to do by asking them lots of questions.

As we were looking at some lovely astrolabes, I heard the tour guide talking about John Radcliffe, who was a major contributor to Oxford in the shape of the University College and the John Radcliffe Hospital amongst other things. My ears pricked up when she mentioned astronomy and astrology asking the adult crowd, rather patronisingly I thought, ‘Who of you know the difference between astronomy and astrology?’. As there was no answer her reply was ‘One of them is real and the other one isn’t’ (no surprise there then) but then went on to mention that John Radcliffe was an astrologer as well as an astronomer. He founded the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford University and I suspect as he was a physician, he used medical astrology, but that is only my assumption.

Although this comment had the usual irritating effect on me, it did start a train of thought. It occurred to me that there is such a lack of respect for these early astrologer/astronomers simply because of the word ‘astrology’ and yet, without astrology, astronomical research wouldn’t be as far advanced as it is. In the early days the point for studying the stars was for astrological purposes, looking for guidance, mainly for Kings as to what will happen to their country and subjects. It would also be used for agricultural purposes, when to plant, when the Nile would flood and that sort of thing.  It certainly wasn’t for the exploration of space as it is now because in those days that would be an impossible, if not sacrilegious, notion.

It was these early astrologer/astronomers who mapped the stars, watched the movements of the planets and worked out tables or ephemerides to predict where they would be.  This research not only helped the Royal Astrologers to predict the outcome of a battle or the size of the next harvest, it also allowed for navigation to other lands.  It paved the way for the invention of the telescope, the development of the astrolabe, not only useful but beautiful too and the sextant.  All this because man was fascinated by the sky and wanted to know what it all meant.

As in life it is sometimes easy, in our arrogance, to forget that what we dismiss as old fashioned and now worthless, was at one point  new and exciting and used as a springboard to progress further.