Who Were the Famous British Astronomers?

Astronomy in the United Kingdom dates back to prehistoric times. Since the dawn of time, British astronomers have been engaged in observation and theory. Through their revolutionary and ground-breaking study, they have achieved some remarkable discoveries about the planet that had previously been beyond human grasp.

The English were the ones who devised new theories, methods, established new facts, and calculated astronomical distances. Their contributions to astronomy have aided our understanding of the universe, our solar system (such as the gravity on different planets), the moon, the sun, and planet Earth.

Check out this article to learn more about renowned British astronomers’ lives, careers, and works.

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was an English cosmologist and theoretical physicist who built a remarkably successful career while suffering from motor neuron disease, severely cutting his physical abilities. He was the first to propose a cosmological theory based on general relativity and quantum physics. In 2002, Hawking was placed 25th in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons.

portrait of Stephen Hawking, computer

Arthur Eddington

Arthur Eddington was an English physicist, mathematician, and astronomer. He published several papers in which he introduced Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the world of English speakers.

He began his career in academia before moving on to astronomy, where he finally became the chief assistant at the Royal Greenwich Observatory to the Astronomer Royal. The Henry Draper Medal was awarded to him.

Edmond Halley

Edmond Halley was an English mathematician and astronomer who focused on practical science applications. Halley dropped out of college to travel to St. Helena. He released a catalog of 341 southern stars, each with a telescopic location.

Halley assisted Newton in publishing his magnum work, Philosophi Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and was known for his wide variety of interests. He calculated the periodicity of Halley’s Comet using Newton’s Law of Motion.

John Herschel

John Herschel, the son of famous astronomer William Herschel, was educated at Cambridge and Eton and became a polymath. He was noted for documenting and naming satellites and stars, in addition to his contributions to photography. He was also the Master of the Royal Mint for a short time.

James Glaisher

James Glaisher, a renowned meteorologist and aeronaut, was a forerunner of balloon flights and the author of the classic book Travels in the Air. He also helped found the Aeronautical Society and the Meteorological Society of the United Kingdom. His adventures as a balloonist are depicted in the 2019 film The Aeronauts.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was reared by her mother alone after her father died when she was four years old. Cecilia was a brilliant student at Cambridge, but she was denied a degree due to her gender. She went on to Harvard and proposed that stars mainly were made of helium and hydrogen, contrary to popular thinking.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was a 19th-century science writer and polymath who was one of the Royal Astronomical Society’s two first female honorary members. She was an expert in astronomy and math, but she was also knowledgeable in geology and botany. Her most famous work is The Connection of Physical Sciences.

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle, an English astronomer, is well known for his stellar nucleosynthesis theory. He spent most of his career at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, where he also served as director for six years. He also wrote short tales, science fiction novels, and plays and gave a series of BBC radio presentations on astronomy.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a Northern Irish astrophysicist. She found the first radio pulsars as a postgraduate student. She carried on to pursue a career in academia after graduating from the University of Glasgow.

For her discovery of radio pulsars, Jocelyn was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018. She gave away the three million dollars she won as a gift.

William Gilbert

William Gilbert was an English physicist, physician, natural philosopher, and astronomer who lived in the 16th century. He graduated from Cambridge with a medical degree and practiced medicine in London.

He was a well-known physician who was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians. He was the personal physician to King James VI and I and Queen Elizabeth I.

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States with her husband, where she worked as a housekeeper for Edward C. Pickering, a Harvard Observatory director. Pickering got her a position at the observatory, and Williamina developed a method for classifying and categorizing stars.

black and white portrait of Williamina Fleming

James Jeans

James Jeans was a British mathematician, physicist, and astronomer who made significant contributions to radiation theory, stellar evolution, and quantum theory. He is a co-founder of British cosmology with Arthur Eddington.

Jeans attended Cambridge University, Trinity College, and Princeton University during his academic career. In 1919, he was awarded the Royal Medal.

Margaret Burbidge

Margaret Burbidge was a British-American observational astronomer and astrophysicist. She was one of the inventors of stellar nucleosynthesis and the original author of the seminal B2FH paper.

She held numerous leadership and administrative positions and was well-known for her work in astronomy to combat gender discrimination. She received the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 1988.

Martin Ryle

Martin Ryle, an English radio astronomer, created the ground-breaking radio telescope systems. He authored interferometric astronomical measurements at radio frequencies alongside fellow radio astronomer Derek Vonberg.

In 1974, Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their astronomical research. In his later years, Ryle became more active in political and social matters.