Who first noticed sunspots? It's hard to
say, as the records left by many ancient peoples have been lost (or not
kept in the first place). But as early as 28 B.C., astronomers in ancient
China recorded systematic observations of the cycles of what looked like
small, changing dark patches on the surface of the sun. And there are some
early references to sunspots in the writings of Greek philosophers from
the fourth century B.C. However, none of the early observers could explain
what they were seeing. What could sunspots be?
Sometimes, strongly held beliefs interfered
with the process of understanding. The ancient Greeks, and other Europeans
after them, were highly influenced by the teachings of Aristotle, a Greek
philosopher who held that the sun and the heavens were ideal, an embodiment
of unblemished perfection. So, many early European astronomers who saw sunspots
were puzzled. How could there be spots on the sun? As Dearborn puts it,
'That's why, when Galileo turned his telescope on the sun, and said "hmm!
there are definitely blemishes on the sun,' it was such a striking discovery."