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Today, an astronomer is a scientist who studies celestial bodies and systems. The study of astronomy has not always been considered science nor has it always been legal. There was a time that practicing astronomy could get you tortured or killed for heresy. Today, professional astronomers are highly educated individuals. They usually have a PhD in physics or astronomy and are employed by research institutions or universities. The majority of their time is spent on research, but quite often they have additional duties like teaching, building instruments, or aiding in the operation of an observatory. The American Astronomical Society, the major organization of professional astronomers in North America, has approximately 7,700 members. This includes scientists from other fields such as physics, geology, and engineering who have research interests related to astronomy. The International Astronomical Union has 9,259 members from 89 different countries who are involved in astronomical research at the PhD level.
In ancient times, astronomy was practiced by philosophers who attempted to explain the workings of the observable night sky. This resulted in a view of the universe with the Earth at the center(geocentrism). Later, religious leaders believed that geocentrism was supported by the Bible and to argue differently was to speak against god and; therefore, heresy for which you could be tortured or put to death. Many think that modern astronomy did not develop until Galileo began his research.
Unlike the age-old image of an old astronomer peering through a telescope during the dark hours of the night, modern astronomers use a charge-coupled device(CCD) camera, which allows a more sensitive image to be created. Before CCDs, photographic plates were commonly used for observation. Modern astronomers spend little time with telescopes, maybe a few weeks per year observing. The rest of their time is spent changing data from raw to processed images, then analyzing it. Some astronomers work entirely from data.
It is hard to imagine that an area of study that has impacted our understanding of the universe around us used to be hated by the churches of the world. It is also difficult to fathom the impact a discovery by an astronomer may have on our future.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the History of Astronomy. Listen here, Episode 183: History of Astronomy, Part 1: The Ancient Astronomers.