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Astronomers Without Borders

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With last week’s opening of 1001 Inventions, we’ve been celebrating cross-cultural collaboration, and astronomy has plenty of examples. At the entrance to the exhibition you can see a display of objects from our collections, including this astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din in Lahore in 1666. The astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the universe that can be held in your hand. It is also a beautiful demonstration of the way knowledge is shared between cultures.

Astrolabe by Jamal al-Din, 1666 (Image: Science Museum)

The first astrolabes were probably developed by the Ancient Greeks. From the 8th century onwards, the instrument was improved by Islamic scholars who took it as far as India and China. The astrolabe was reintroduced to Europe via Moorish Spain. By the 17th century the craftsmen of the Low Countries were producing elaborate instruments like this one.

An astrolabe that can’t be held in your hand is the Yantra Raj, one of the instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India. This giant stone observatory was built for accuracy rather than portability, to help improve the calendar. In 18th-century India people used a combination of the lunar-based Muslim and the solar-based Hindu systems. Both relied on observations made centuries earlier, so became increasingly unreliable. Jaipur’s ruler, Jai Singh II, commissioned the new observatory. This model, on display in Cosmos & Culture , shows one instrument called the Rashivalaya Yantra, with sundials to track the Sun through each zodiac sign.

Model of part of the Jaipur observatory (Image: Science Museum)

The observatory at Jaipur is just one of the examples that historian Simon Schaffer will be talking about during Space … a real frontier? at the Dana Centre next Thursday. He’ll be joined by Craig Underwood of Surrey Satellite Technology and our own Doug Millard as we explore celestial collaborations through the ages. There’s still time to book a ticket for the event, which also includes tours of 1001 Inventions and Cosmos & Culture – hope to see you there!

Written by Alison Boyle

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  1. augene

    Jaipur observatory; What a surprise to see this model as we were wandering about with not specific direction. My children climbed on the real thing this last December when we were in Delhi! Seeing a model of something they’d really experienced in another country brought the exhibition alive to them! The science museum is full of surprises. We see something different each time we visit.
    Many thanks!

    1. Alison Boyle, Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics

      Thanks, augene. The children might also be interested in this section of our Ingenious website which has photographs of some of the other models in our collection, maybe they climbed on those instruments too!

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