Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy

edited by Michael Hoskin
hardback - 400 pages
from Cambridge University Press

Astronomical references and allusions are as numberless as the stars of night. From the compass points to our longitude and latitude grid, from the number and names of the days of the week to the names of our cars (Saturn, Nova, Eclipse, Subaru...) and the confections that we eat (Mars and Milky Way bars, Moon Pies...), astronomy is all around us. Yet how much of the history of our evolving study of the universe do most of us actually know? Even most working astronomers (and the textbooks which they write) show, at best, an incomplete knowledge of the history of astronomy.

Fortunately, we live in a golden age of astronomical histories and biographies. Donald Osterbrock and Gale Christianson's biographies of famous astronomers and institutions, as well as Dava Sobel's bestsellers, Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, have attracted much deserved attention. But if you're interested in an overall survey of our millennia long fascination with the universe, you can't do better than The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy.

While its title may sound rather academic and boring, the Cambridge History is well written, "fast paced" and so copiously illustrated that it might be classified as a mere "coffee-table book," but for the fact that it is so perceptive and reliable. This is no doubt a result of the solid work of its editor who is a genuine "big name" in the field of history of astronomy. Michael Hoskin is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, where he has been the Department head for History and Philosophy of Science as well as editor of the Journal for the History of Astronomy. He knows the territory and has chosen well-known experts in their fields (Owen Gingerich, Clive Ruggles, et al.) to collaborate on specialized topics such as prehistoric astronomy, Islamic and Medieval astronomy, etc.

As appropriate in a modern history, the astronomies of other cultures (China, Islam, etc.) are examined and women astronomers such as Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin are given their proper recognition. Basic scientific principles and controversies are clearly explained and often illustrated with illuminating diagrams. Popular misconceptions (the alleged medieval belief in a flat Earth) and myths (from Stonehenge as an eclipse calculator to the Curtis-Shapley "Great Debate") are examined and either punctured or properly recast. The circumstances leading to the trial of Galileo and its aftermath are given in a necessarily brief form that nevertheless conveys the complex issues that will insure continuing reinterpretations for generations to come.

It's revealing to discover that the roots of what's now called the "Dark Matter Question" go back to before World War I and that such simple observations as the darkness of the night sky (Obler's Paradox) were recognized to have cosmologically profound implications back at the time of Newton and Halley. But no survey can include everything and there is simply not room for many of the charming anecdotes and personalities that lend spice to the history of the "sleepwalkers" of astronomy. You'll have to go elsewhere to find out about Tycho Brahe's golden prosthetic nose or the scandalous tale of the young Edmund Halley and the governor's wife or the trials of Fr. Hell or... But that's what makes Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy so valuable, it's an accurate survey of the forest before you set out to gather colorful leaves.