Biographies

Among my favorite category of books to read. As I plod though more scientific biographies, especially of astronomers, I'll add them here.

Last updated 4/4/02


Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel by Banesh Hoffmann (with Helen Dukas) -- I have read several biographies of Einstein, some of which are among my list of all-time favorite books. None however, approach the intimacy or sense of personal connection as Hoffmann and Dukas' 1972 classic "Creator and Rebel." Perhaps because of Helen Dukas' influence, this book contains perhaps the most intimate look at the man and, thanks to Hoffmann, the one of the clearest explanations of his science. As more recent work has been done delving into the live of this legendary scientist, this book looks more and more "laundered." Hoffman and Dukas were very close to Einstein, and this book was written not long after his death. They obviously had an interest in protecting his memory and were careful not to include any material which could have been perceived as shedding negative light on the man. Indeed, Einstein comes across as nearly saintly in this book. Don't be dissuaded though. If you only have a chance to read one biography of Einstein, this would be an excellent choice.

Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Guy Consolmagno -- Written by an astrophysicist who is also a devout Jesuit, and is passionate about both his faith and his science. This book vacillates between a very personal and thoughtful examination of the rift between science and religion (whose main thesis is that the rift only exists because of the biases and world-views of those who look at the issue) and a personal narrative of some of his experiences at the Vatican observatory, pre-Jesuit days, and looking for meteorites at the south pole.

Carl Sagan : A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone; Carl Sagan : A Life by Keay Davidson -- Carl Sagan is easily the second most famous scientist of the 20th century. If you came of age in the period 1970-1990, you were influenced by Sagan - period. Whatever you may think of him as a scientist, you must admit that nobody did more to popularize science in the public eye during this period. The two most obvious examples are his Cosmos television series and his numerous appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.

Poundstone's book reflects Ann Druyan's influence much more than Davidson's. The result is a much more flattering account of Sagan's life, potentially minimizing some of the warts. Davidson, if anything, spends too much effort trying to psychohistorically analyze Sagan's two failed marriages and his fractured relationship with oldest son Dorion.

Davidson also focuses much more attention on Sagan's books, attempting to plot the development of his career as a scientist and maturity as a writer based on each book's unique character. Here again, he attempts to delve below the surface into the hidden motives and influences. For instance, while both Poundstone and Davidson detail Sagan's marijuana use, Davidson goes further and suggests that the Pulitzer-winning Dragon's of Eden was largely a marijuana- induced work.

William Poundstone Focuses more on his scientific achievements, with emphasis on the many conferences he chaired regarding SETI, exobiology, and his work on the Voyager and Mariner probes to Mars and the gas giants. Some of the reviews of the latter actually read like a popular scientific account of these missions, written around Sagan's contribution and perspective.

A very rough generalization would be that Davidson looks more closely at Sagan's personal life while Poundstone looks more closely at his scientific achievements, though both books do cover the whole picture. Poundstone's book left me with more of a positive regard for Sagan though, and struck me as the better book of the two. Poundstone's account strikes me as first and foremost a work of scientific biography, with more detail of Sagan's scientific achievements.

Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas by Alan Cook

An outstandingly thorough and meticulously researched biography of one of history's most outstanding scientists. Matters related to events in Halley's life are notoriously difficult to reconstruct. He was not a pack-rat like Newton or Kepler, and failed to keep thorough diaries like Hooke. Biographers have to rely on the notes of others, public records, and published papers. Cook rises to the occasion and has produced a biographic work that will rival those of of other important scientists of the era.

Though remembered chiefly for the comet that bears his name, Halley was a scientist of extraordinary breadth and depth. Cook reconstructs all the major categories of Halley's productivity. Chapters are devoted to his youth, the year spent at St. Helena mapping the southern stars, his key role in prying the Principia out of Newton, his role in the quest for longitude at sea, his years as the Astronomer Royal, as well as his career on the high seas, both as a ship's captain (civilian) and scientist/explorer. A scientist like Halley demands a biography of considerable scope, and Cook delivers.

As much as any biography I've read, Cook's "Halley" spends considerable space delving into the contemporary zeitgeist. The 30 page opening chapter "Halley's World," is a splendid essay on the culture and spiritual/political/popular world of the late 17th and early 18th century in Great Britain and Europe.

This book is not an easy read, but it is absolutely essential for any student of the golden age of science. Halley lived in Newton's shadow, but was never eclipsed. Cook has done the literary world a great service in this book.

Einstein In Love: A Scientific Romance by Dennis Overbye (2000) -- Nine years may seem like a long time to wait for an encore. Overbye's 1991 "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos" was an instant classic - a scientific biography of a half-dozen of astronomy's most interesting characters. I've often lamented that this was Overbye's only book. Why couldn't someone capable of writing such a seamless blend of biography and popular science have a whole shelf of his own?

Dennis Overbye has answered that question with a resounding "patience, patience..." Overbye has indeed been busy. For the last several years, he has spent considerable time with a dozen or so scholars who are pouring over the Einstein papers - a vast repository of personal documents that had been tied up in legal limbo since Einstein's death in 1955. As this material is slowly and deliberately digested by scholars, a much more personal picture of the man is emerging - a portrait beautifully captured by Overbye in this effort.

Overbye's book "Einstein in Love" is a stunning follow-on to his earlier work, this one focusing on a single individual - the most famous scientist who ever lived. It fully captures his relationships with family and friends. Besso, Solovine, Habicht, Grossman, Mileva - his first wife and the mother of his 3 children - all come to life within these pages. Overbye documents the mysterious disappearance of his first child, the daughter Lieserl, but doesn't attempt to solve it.

Overbye admits that this book is not strictly a biography. He begins the story during Einstein's college years and ends soon after the completion of the theory of general relativity and the confirmation by Eddington's eclipse observations. This is in part because the vast work of sorting through the Einstein papers is itself not yet far enough to permit further exploration, but surely more is to come.

There is no shortage of biographical and popular scientific books on Einstein and relativity. Overbye sets his latest effort apart from the pack with an unprecedented personal look into the life of the young Einstein as can only be achieved with the wealth of personal correspondence available in the Einstein papers. Overbye's writing style is almost poetic. He has a way of turning a phrase and capturing the essence of a moment. I have read a great many of the above mentioned works on Einstein (as well as biographies of many other scientists) but have never felt so captivated by a story.

This book continues the slow process of eroding some enduring myths regarding Einstein. For instance, it is frequently noted that as a patent office clerk in Bern, Einstein was cut off from the scientific world, blissfully unaware of the work being done by physicists in Europe and the United States. In fact, Overbye notes that during his tenure in the patent office, Einstein was writing review articles for a German physics journal, summarizing the content of dozens of articles being published around the world. He also documents how Einstein almost certainly read the Michelson-Morley research while he was still a student at ETH under Weber, and was well aware of the precarious state of the "aether."

New material found in this volume includes tidbits such as the newly discovered Einstein notebook. Labeled "Lecture notes 1909-1915," it was noticed in 1995 that Einstein had written "relativity" on the back cover and started making notes on his struggle for a theory of gravitation in the same notebook, going from back to front, in the process giving the Einstein researchers enough material for several years of study. Overbye also notes a paper by Einstein and Grossman, written in 1912, in attempt to calculate the precession of Mercury's orbit based on an earlier flawed version of the field equations. The calculation was a disaster and Einstein obviously chose to bury it rather than publish and withstand the storm of criticism against his struggling theory. This paper was also unearthed from Princeton archives in 1995.

Overbye also includes a detailed discussion of Eddington's 1919 eclipse data. It is accepted scientific fact (though not widely known in the popular or biographical literature) that Eddington's data was not as conclusive as history has given him credit for. The conventional historical wisdom is that Eddington found a shift in stellar positions near the sun's limb that corresponded precisely to Einstein's prediction based on General Relativity. The truth is that Eddington fudged the numbers a bit, tossing out one set of plates that gave a value far too low, and kept two plates that had a larger shift, but also a larger error bar around the values. Eddington's faith in the theory (not to mention Einstein's!) was so great that he evidently was able to rationalize his actions - which would have been heavily criticized by his peers, had they been widely known.

And if that's not enough, Overbye doesn't gloss over relativity. To the contrary, he has equal facility in explaining thorny physical concepts in language that any reasonably educated and interested person can understand. He doesn't attempt to explain relativity mathematically, but does a wonderful job of tracing the development of Einstein's thought over time, as played out in correspondence with his friends and scientific colleagues. In fact, he has woven the scientific and personal together in a way that is surprisingly smooth, given that almost a century has elapsed since some of the principle discoveries, not to mention that Einstein himself has been dead for nearly half that long.

This book will quickly take its place as one of the most important and popular works on the life of Albert Einstein, and one that should not be missed by any lover of science history.

Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale E. Christianson

One of the most remarkable astronomers of all time, and the one who generally gets the credit for the biggest revolution since Copernicus: Hubble was the one who recognized that the universe is expanding, and who first articulated the principle that bears his name, that of the expansion constant, the "Hubble" constant.

This outstanding work does a good job of tracing his early years, a task made difficult by the fact that his wife destroyed many of his personal papers after his death. Hubble was enigmatic, aloof, and possibly disingeneous. He shed his Missouri roots and donned the polished exterior of a Brit. He was a shameless anglophile to the end of his life.

He had a knack for asking the right questions at the right time, and being a talented enough observer to get the data needed to address those questions.

An interesting sidebar to the Hubble story is that of his faithful sidekick at Mt. Wilson and later Palomar; Milton Humason. Humason is a man in need of a bio himself. A grammer school dropout who started out driving mules up the mountain in the glory days of telescope building, he eventually got a job as a janitor on Mt. Wilson. Some of the astronomers learned that he had a knack with mechanical things, and soon were asking his help with various aspects of the domes and scopes. Soon after that, they started to allow him to help out with some photos, and before long Milt was running a small scope himself. Once they realized the guy had a knack for taking long exposure photos, Milt wasn't far from being promoted to assistant astronomer. Not bad for a 4th grade education!

Explorer of the Universe : A Biography of George Ellery Hale by Helen Wright -- By definition, biographies have as their subjects those who have achieved greatness. Biographies of well known scientists rank among the best of the genre: Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Pasteur, Curie, Feynman, etc.

Few, however, can compete with the list of accomplishments of George Ellery Hale. Perhaps justifiably he is remembered as the builder of giant telescopes. He built three of the greatest of all time, and spearheaded a fourth - the Palomar 200 inch - though he did not live to see it completed and named in his honor. However, Hale's considerable life's work goes much further. He was a groundbreaking solar astronomer, inventing new instruments and methods of studying the sun's activity. His invention of the spectroheliograph and subsequent discovery of the magnetic field lines of sunspots nearly earned him a Nobel prize (Hale was nominated for the Nobel prize in physics by many other recipients of that award - including Millikan. Wright repeats the story that Alfred Nobel did not like astronomers and wanted no astronomer to win that award, a bias which was not overcome until the 1970's). The Nobel Prize was the only major scientific honor that eluded Hale. He won the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, the Janssen Medal of the Paris Academy of Sciences (twice), the Rumford Medal, the Gold Medal of the RAS, the Draper Medal of the NAS, the Bruce Medal, the list goes on.

He founded the Astrophysical Journal; was foundational in forming the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society. He was instrumental in the transformation of the Throop Institute of Pasadena into the venerable California Institute of Technology and attracting top-notch talent to its teaching and research staff. He had a vision for the cooperation of the sciences and the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council were the result.

As great as his organization abilities were, his true love always remained that of plumbing the depths of stellar evolution, and he was always anxious to return to his own research. In the process he turned down the presidency of MIT. He took a pass when offered the position of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He also eventually resigned as director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, both for health reasons and to allow him time to return to his own solar observatory.

Hale also had a passion for sharing the sciences with the public. Early on he was committed that the Yerkes refractor be opened to the public one night a week. He authored a half-dozen popular books on astronomy. He was an avid admirer of art, music and history, and was central in the establishment of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, CA.

Perhaps Hale's greatest achievement was bridging the gap between the observational astronomy of the 19th century (and before) to the 20th century study of physics and physical phenomenon. More than any other individual, Hale recognized that astronomy and physics made the perfect marriage, and he pioneered methods to bring the physical laboratory and the astronomer's telescope together.

As good as it is, and Wright's is one of the best scientific biographies available, she does stand guilty of starting a terrible misconception about Hale's mental state. It is generally well known that Hale suffered from nervous breakdowns that were at times completely incapacitating. Wright gets the credit for starting the story about Hale's supposed little "elf" that visited and talked to him, and who has come to represent his illness. Historians William Sheehan and Donald Osterbrock trace it to a misunderstanding of one of Hale's letters to a friend and note that the "'demon' (the word he actually used) was a metaphor, referring either to his conscience or to his depressed mood (like Winston Churchill's 'black dog'), and certainly not an apparition." (see this New York Times Book Review editorial for the reference).

This book easily earns its five-star rating. For more information on Hale and a more modern reading of the building of Palomar, see Ronald Florence's excellent "The Perfect Machine." Osterbrock's two outstanding books "Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution" and "Pauper & Prince : Ritchey, Hale, & Big American Telescopes" also contain much valuable information about the man the New York Times called "one of the most eminent men of science this coutry ever produced."

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel -- a very personal biography of Galileo, told from the standpoint of his daughter's side of a multi year correspondence. S. M. Celeste was in a convent and wrote to her father often. Galileo's side was lost, but Sobel does a great job of painting a human face on one of the great figures of the millennium. This book cannot stand alone or serve as a replacement for the many excellent biographies of Galileo, but it does have an important place amongst those other works. For instance, only in S.M. Celeste's letters will you see the plain face of Galileo's faith in God and the (Catholic) Church. The Galileo affair is often presented as the epitome of the conflict between faith and science, and it is often assumed that Galileo was challenging the authority of the church or the bible. As this book shows, Galileo was a man of great faith and remained faithful and committed to God and the church until his dying day.

A great book.

Houdini, His Life and Art by James Randi -- Randi chronicles the life of a true skeptic and amazing magician. A great read.

The Immortal Fire Within: The Life and Work of Edward Emerson Barnard by William Sheehan -- This is a meticulously researched and well written book about one of the most celebrated astronomers of the turn of the last century, who is unfortunately almost forgotten today. As was the case with many well known scientists of the 19th century, Barnard started life inauspiciously and came to science as a result of his considerable amateur achievements. Poor and virtually uneducated as a child in Nashville, he distinguished himself as a photographer's assistant, and developed a lifelong interest in the night sky. After becoming fairly well known as an amateur astronomer, he attracted the attention of the officials of what would eventually become Vanderbilt University. The regents were persuaded to build an observatory, and installed the young Barnard as its director, even though he had no college education (not even high school!). Barnard was aware of his limitations, particularly in mathematics, and began to audit courses at Vanderbilt in math, astronomy, and physics. When he finally left several years later to take a position at the new Lick Observatory in California, he had the equivalent of a bachelor's degree, though a degree was never officially conferred.

Barnard's life in astronomy is marked by greatness. Comets were his early passion and he discovered many, but he was equally please to make detailed observations of any comet, regardless if it was "his" or not. He was also a passionate observer of the planets. His discovery of Jupiter's fifth moon was the event for which posterity usually remembers him, but he also made ground breaking observations of Mars and Saturn. Though he never publicly said so, he was one of the earliest skeptics of his good friend Percival Lowell's "canal" observations of Mars. Barnard's sketches in the early 1890's revealed details of what would later be called Valles Marineris and the volcano calderas of Olympus Mons, Arsia Mons, and Ascraeus Mons, but showed no evidence of canals. Later, Barnard pioneered the use of wide field photography and made some of the earliest and best photographic studies of the Milky Way, and eventually authored the catalog of dark nebulae that bears his name. He also did considerable photographic work with comets and put forth some controversial (and mostly correct) theories about the nature of the mysterious coma and tails. His pioneering work in stereoscopic photography was done with comets as well, where a special viewer allowed the viewing of two sequential shots of a comet, making the comet stand out in relief against the background stars. Barnard's penchant for closely studying his photos was rewarded by his discovery of the great looping nebula in the constellation Orion that bears his name, as well as the faint star of fast proper motion in Ophiuchus (Barnard's star).

Sheehan's writing is marvelously clear and interesting, and his documentation is thorough. He lays bare Barnard's decade long quarrels with Lick director Edward S. Holden, and follows Barnard to Yerkes in Wisconsin where he spent over 20 years and eventually ended his career. Sheehan is a psychiatrist by training and makes an occasional conjecture regarding the psychology of various characters. I found this distracting at first but he never went overboard with it. By the end of the book, I found myself wishing he would be even more adventurous with his psychohistoriagraphy in the case of George Hale's well known struggles with mental illness, but Sheehan didn't take the bait beyond a few general comments.

Overall, I found this book virtually impossible to put down, and was almost depressed that it had to end. Dozens of wonderful pictures of Barnard and his companions, astrophotos, and sketches litter its pages. A detailed index is supplied making cross-referencing the many names and places easy.

E.E. Barnard was a pivotal figure in the history of astronomy, straddling the breach between observational work of the 19th century, and the "new" astronomy (astrophysics) of the 20th. Barnard never ceased being an observer to the end of his life, and in many ways it is his spirit that lives on in the form of amateur astronomy at the beginning of the 21st century.

An outstanding brief biography can be found here.

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos : The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe by Dennis Overbye -- A history of cosmology, somewhat dated now, that is structured around biographies of some of the major players. Allan Sandage, Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, Beatrice Tinsley, James Peebles, Marc Aaronson, etc. I have to tip my hand and say that this is one of my favorite books about astronomy and cosmology. Maybe I like the biographical aspect, or the fact that Overbye is just a great storyteller, and this is one great story. You gain an inside track into the transition of power between Hubble and Sandage. I don't think I really understood the inflation theory until I read Overbye's presentation (better even than Guth's book "The Inflationary Universe). If you like to read biographies of astronomers, this book will be right up your alley. If you like to read about cosmology and astrophysics, you may be distracted by Overbye's approach, but you'll still find the book worthwhile.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman

An endearing look at one of our century's mathematical geniuses. Erdos lived and breathed mathematics. He had no home, no car, no family, and no interests other than numbers. He maintained an astonishing level of productivity right up until his death. Erdos existed on the generosity of others. He moved from university to university, giving talks, participating in seminars, but mostly just meeting other mathematicians and students, and asking "what are you working on now?" Colleagues welcomed him with open arms, for he was usually good for solving an intractable problem or two, collaborating on a few papers, and then moving on to his next temporary abode. This is a delightful book about a delightful person, eccentric though he was. It's also a good look into how mathematicians work.

Pauper and Prince: Ritchey, Hale, and Big American Telescopes by Donald Osterbrock (1993) -- There could hardly be a greater contrast between two men than that of George Ritchey and George Hale. Hale was a scientist, fund raiser, organizer, motivator, and extraordinarily successful at all he attempted. Ritchey was a gifted instrument maker, but a failure at human relations, organizational matters, and managed to squander most of his opportunities, particularly after he left Mt. Wilson. Osterbrock's book is the story of the great era of American astronomy dominated by the telescopes of George Ellery Hale, and Hale is necessarily prominent in its pages. However, Osterbrock tells the story, for the most part, from the perspective of the gifted mirror grinder and optician, Ritchey, who mostly received short-shrift in other documentaries of this era. Osterbrock attempts to correct some oversights of other histories which have tended to downplay Ritchey's contributions. Ritchey, for instance, was the project manager for most of the 60- and 100-inch Mt. Wilson telescope projects, and without him, arguably, these instruments would not have been the stupendous successes they were. Clearly Hale owed much to Ritchey, but after their falling out and Ritchey's subsequent firing from Mt. Wilson, Ritchey all but disappeared from American astronomy. Hale didn't overtly blackball him, but such was Hale's influence and universal respect, that if Hale didn't want to be around you, well then, nobody wanted to be around you. Ritchey spent years in France working on several telescope projects that ultimately failed, and eventually came back to the US as an old man and built the reflector for the US Naval Observatory, a 40-inch Ritchey-Chretien model. It was an exquisite instrument, but due to its location in light-polluted Washington D.C., it never realized its potential until long after Ritchey was dead and it was moved to an Arizona mountaintop.

Osterbrock points out that the Ritchey-Chretien reflector model, so ignored and disparaged during his lifetime, eventually won out and now nearly all large telescopes are built using this model.

Ritchey was a genius and well ahead of his time in many respects. It was apparently his misfortune to have lived opposite the likes of George Hale, who because of money, position, and success, was able to overshadow and dominate his accomplishments. If Ritchey could have adapted to his position as optician, he could have had a sparkling career at Mt. Wilson, and later, Mt. Palomar. Instead, his hard-headedness met the immovable object of George Hale's ambition and momentum, and Ritchey ultimately lost.

The Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter

It is inevitable that Albert Einstein's "private lives" will fall under the dissection knives of historians and biographers. There are already dozens of excellent biographies of Einstein on the market, ranging from the extremely scientific to the extremely personal. As the Einstein Papers Project continues to explore the personal correspondence of this remarkable scientist, we can expect the personal revelations to continue. Einstein, as were all great figures of history, was a very complicated person, and a very human one.

In this work, the authors take a very personal look at his life between the high school years and the publication of special relativity. Specifically, it focuses on his first marriage, to Mileva Maric'. Much about this relationship was kept intentionally hidden for years by Einstein's secretary Helen Dukas, and scientist Otto Nathan, who became the de facto protectors of the "Einstein image." Since they had known him in the era of his marriage to his cousin Elsa, they understandably sought to minimize and downplay any factors from his younger years that might reflect negatively upon him, and a failed first marriage, with an illegitimate child, could certainly be seen as less than flattering.

Highfield and Carter's book draws heavily on the work of the Einstein Papers scholars Stachel, Renn, and Schulmann. Einstein's voluminous correspondence from those years has shed much new light on such questions as the fate of the daughter Liseral, but without providing definitive answers. Considerable time is also spent on the issue of Mileva's role in the development of special relativity - topic that exploded with the force of a bomb in recent years.

Einstein has been dead for nearly half a century now, and it is certain now that his private life will be subjected to as intense scrutiny as has special and general relativity. This book, along with Overbye's "Einstein in Love" take a respectful but straightforward approach. Any Einstein admirer or general fan of the history of science should read this book.

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam Jr. -- Whether you've seen October Sky or not, this book is a charming and interesting read.

Russell W. Porter, arctic explorer, artist, telescope maker by Berton C. Willard -- It's too bad that more amateur astronomers are not aware of the incredibly rich legacy of our hobby. Going back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amateur telescope making was a booming hobbyist industry. Much of the credit goes to men like Leslie Peltier, William Tyler Olcott, and the subject of this book, Russell Porter.

After satisfying his desire to explore the arctic and climb mountains, Porter settled down in rural Vermont, where he started grinding mirrors and making telescopes. Trained as an architect, he had a gift for sketching out his ideas in wonderful 3-D perspective and he was the author of many creative ideas for telescopes. He wrote many columns on amateur telescope making for Popular Astronomy and Scientific American magazines, and probably single-handedly sparked the revolution in this hobby in the 1920s. He also started the Stellafane convention in Springfield Vermont, a legendary yearly star party whose tradition continues to this day.

Porter's talents soon came to the attention of George Ellery Hale, who was then putting together a team to design and build the 200 inch telescope. Hale offered Porter a job designing the mount for the beast and setting up and heading the instrument shops. Porter's contributions to the construction of the 200 inch were astounding, given that his only experience with telescopes was making amateur instruments of modest aperture. Porter's sketches and drawings in the design phase of the project are themselves legendary. It was frequently said that his drawings were referred to by the builders almost as much as the schematic plans. Many of Porter's original drawings are permanently housed at a Carnegie exhibit in Washington DC, and have won the acclaim of artists as well as astronomers.

Some of Porter's other exploits included working with some partners during W.W.II to construct badly needed roof prisms for military applications (tank periscopes, primarily). Porter and the others convinced the army that amateur telescope makers were uniquely skilled to grind these prisms to the exacting tolerances required by the military.

This volume is lavishly illustrated with vintage black and white photos and dozens of Porter's drawings. Willard writes with the flare and vividness of a personal friend, though he claims never to have met the man. Porter comes across as a gentle, sincere man, who was always willing to take the time to show others a technique, or inspect a telescope constructed by an amateur.

This book is extremely charming and a wonderfully sketched portrait of a great man.

Starlight Nights : The Adventures of a Star-Gazer by Leslie C Peltier (new edition with a foreword by David Levy) -- "A hymn to the sky" -Levy. To me, no book more beautifully captures the spirit of amateur astronomy that Peltier's Starlight Nights. I first read this book several years ago and still remember marveling at Peltier's intensely personal autobiography. In writing of his childhood in Delphos, Ohio, he spares few details of life on the early 1900's farm, and we wait spellbound with him as he orders his first telescope after catching the astronomy bug as a young teenager. We breathlessly await the partial eclipse of 1918 (the teenaged Leslie lacked the funds to travel the 500 miles necessary to see totality in the US's first total eclipse of the century), and are swept away again that very night as he was one of the first to note the spectacular Nova Aquila as it rose to a stunning -1.4 mag.

Peltier's descriptions of his experiences are as elegant as they are simple. His deep respect and admiration for nature are woven into every page, not only for things astronomical, but terrestrial as well, for he was a naturalist of varied interests.

This reissue comes with a new foreword by David Levy, as well as several rare photographs (on the cover and back, as well as a few in the foreword) of Peltier, his early telescopes and homes. If you are familiar with this book, take this opportunity to read it again. If you've never read it before, set aside a long evening - you won't put it down after you start.

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