Science has been of crucial cultural importance to the UK for the length of its recorded history. When Britain’s scientists have sought to understand the natural world, they have always turned to the stars. Developments in our understanding of the earth and stars changed the course of the country’s history forever, turning it from a tertiary nation into a global power whose influence encompassed the globe. And it was all done by staring at the sky.
This week, we’re going to explore the astronomical history of the UK and discover how this fascinating science has been changing the country for centuries. Stargazing in the UK
Five thousand years ago, our ancient ancestors dragged enormous stone monoliths over 250km from their home in Wales to erect them on a hillside on the Salisbury plain. Precisely why this was accomplished is beyond the understanding of modern scholars, but certain details of the stones’ arrangement provide us with some fascinating clues. For example, on the day of the summer solstice, the sun rises in perfect alignment with the heel stone – the site’s largest monolith. The rocks also show signs of several special lunar and solar alignments.
Researchers today believe that Stonehenge may have functioned as a sort of calendar or method of predicting eclipses. Whatever it was used for, this fascinating structure is amongst the very earliest known attempts at understanding the physical world above our heads. It’s not the only one, though. The Temple Wood circle in Argyll, Scotland is nearly as old as Stonehenge and dated at around 2000 years BC.
The Royal Observatory
Fast forward to the 17th Century AD and Britain’s impact on the world’s scientific community comes to fruition. In 1675, royal scientists persuaded King Charles II to commission the building of a new observatory in Greenwich, London. In the decades to come, scientists here would change the landscape of science, discovering Greenwich Meantime and commissioning the world’s most accurate timepieces. It was these innovations that allowed the British Navy to safely circumnavigate the globe and explore countless undiscovered regions.
In the 300 years in which it was active, astronomers at the Royal Observatory mapped almost every star visible from the northern and southern hemispheres – an astonishing feat! The Royal Observatory still exists today as an institution but has moved from its seat in Greenwich to a quieter location in Herstmonceux, East Sussex.
Sir Isaac Newton
Looking to the stars has allowed mankind to understand the physical laws of the universe and our place within it. Astrology has produced some of the brightest scientific minds of known history, and foremost amongst them stands Isaac Newton.
Newton was a British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician born in Kensington, Middlesex. He revolutionized the world of science with his theories on optics, mechanics and, most notably, gravity, for which he is most well-known. His research into the laws of our universe set the stage for everything we understand about physics today.
If you’re in the capital, you can visit Newton’s house on Jermyn Street near Green Park. It’s one of London’s most important blue-plaque locations. You can also visit both Stonehenge and the Royal Observatory with our hassle-free tours. Take a look!