History of Astronomy, Physics, Space Exploration, and related sciences

One of my favorite topics to explore. Books in this category are quite diverse, ranging from theoretical physics to space travel.

Last updated November 13, 2004

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus by Owen Gingerich
The period from Copernicus to Newton is certainly one of the richest and most important in the history of astronomy. Material covering this period is plentiful and one of the chief challenges for the casual historian of astronomy is culling through the options and deciding what to read.

Certainly biographies figure high on the priority list. Here the selections reflect the amount of material available about the lives of the principle players. Galileo and Newton have no shortage of books devoted to their lives and work. Biographies of Copernicus are rare because relatively little is known of his life. Kepler and Tycho fall somewhere in the middle.

The current work of by Owen Gingerich is a very different take. It is essentially the biography of a book: Copernicus' seminal De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Gingerich has been in a hunt for surviving copies of the 1st and 2nd editions of Copernicus' De Rev for over 30 years, and this book tells the story of his journey and its rewards, trials, dead-ends, who dunits, and frustrations. Gingerich has written of his trek before, in magazines and selected articles. Many of these pieces have been released in his two excellent compilations, The Great Copernicus Chase and The Eye of Heaven, but those few pieces were only tantalizing morsels. The full course meal is in the present volume, and it is a treat.

Gingerich's census of surviving copies of De Rev presents a unique window into the development of cosmology and the slow acceptance of the heliocentric view. Early scholarly readers were in the habit of annotating their copies, pointing out their agreements and dissents, occasional passages of scripture, comments of their teachers, etc. Since many of the books passed from owner to owner over the centuries, Gingerich found many copies that contained multiple layers of annotations, marginal notes, edits, censorings, etc.

What began as a simple census of extant copies soon turned into a scientific/historic detective story as Gingerich traced the various schools of thought, teacher/student relationships, and geographic migration of ideas through 16th to 18th century Europe. The result is a fascinating, personal account of the journey, detailing many of Gingerich's wrong turns and dead ends as well as the brilliant deductions and "aha" moments as he traveled the globe and interacted with the community of Copernicus scholars, rare book dealers, and often, the seamy underside of library theft and international looting during wartime.

The title, by the way, is lifted from Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, a work which Gingerich read as a graduate student. Koestler referred to De Rev as "the book nobody read," and Gingerich was inspired to find out if that was really true. Except for the opening chapter on cosmology, De Rev is a murderously technical and geometrical treatise, and could only be understood by those well-trained in mathematics. But as Gingerich soon learned, it was far from ignored.

Gingerich's book has much to add to any history of the period. De Rev was owned by virtually all of the important figures in the history of astronomy. Tycho, Kepler, Galileo and Newton all figure prominently in the story, and Gingerich's clear prose and knack for story telling will give even the uninitiated reader a pleasurable introduction to one of the most fascinating periods in history. However, to the knowledgeable reader who is already familiar with the development of ideas in astronomy, this book will be hard to put down due to its unique spin on the period.

Gingerich has produced an instant classic in the history of astronomy with this book. It is a fascinating read and has already entered my personal top-ten list as a book that will be referred to again and again.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris -- An excellent history of cosmology, from ancient astronomers to string theory. Ferris is a great story-teller and does a great job of summarizing the revolutions in astronomy and astrophysics.

The Copernican Revolution by Thomas S. Kuhn -- A difficult book to read, but more accessible than Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's Copernican Revolution is a fascinating and technical look at how Copernicus' ideas changed the course of history and subsequent development of western thought. Reading this book gave me the clearest idea ever exactly how the Ptolemaic system actually worked.

The Dancing Universe : From Creation Myths to the Big Bang by Marcelo Gleiser

Discovery of Neptune by Morton Grosser -- A wonderful little book! The story of the discovery of the 8th planet reads like a cross between a detective story and a modern soap opera. Two brilliant mathematician/astronomers, one English (Adams) and one French (Leverrier); a conceited and arrogant astronomer Royal (Airy), and a host of observational astronomers. The Frenchman and Englishman do their calculations independently, to discover the position of the unseen planet beyond Uranus whose gravity is perturbing its orbit, and after a number of false starts and missteps, a German astronomer (Galle) finally points his telescope in the right direction and finds Neptune exactly where it was said to be. The Frenchman gets the credit because it was his directions the German was following. But the Englishman attempted, rightfully through the astronomer Royal, to have his calculations circulated and acted upon, only to be frustrated by Airy's neglect and outright incompetence, founded in arrogance. The ensuing debate pitted country against country and turned quite ugly. Fortunately, the two mathematicians never joined the struggle, but went on to become lifelong friends and mutual admirers. History was to grant Adams and Leverrier equal credit, along with the observer Galle, for the discovery of Neptune. Only 170 pages long, this is a quick read and very well written.

Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America by Edwin Danson

Most people have probably heard of the Mason-Dixon line, though they may not be aware of where or exactly what it is. I grew up less than three miles from the famous line that separates Maryland from Pennsylvania, and was aware that there were stone monuments spaced every mile along the boarder - but I had no idea of the origins of this line. Danson weaves the historical backdrop that necessated the survey and follows Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two British astronomers, as they traveled to the colonies with their telescopes, quadrants, and mathematical expertise. A surveying job such as this required esquisite accuracy in the determination of latitude and longitude - a job for skilled astronomers in their day.

For the more technically inclined, appendices are provided that go deeper into the methods surveyors use to shoot the lines. Given the amount of astronomy involved in the process for Mason an Dixon, I wish the author would have provided more detail about the instruments Dixon and Mason used to accomplish their task. I'm sure it was not Danson's intention to cover this sort of technical instrumentation in detail, but in my (biased) opinion, it would have enhanced the story. Still an excellent book and one any person interested in history should read.

Echoes of the Ancient Skies : The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations by Edwin C. Krupp

First You Build a Cloud by K.C. Cole -- A beautifully written history of physics.

Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8: The First Manned Flight to Another World by Robert Zimmerman -- Makes the assertion that Apollo 8 was a more revolutionary flight than Apollo 11 because 8 was the first time humans left the vicinity and gravitational influence of Earth. The story is told against the backdrop of the world history of the time, the cold war, Vietnam, the Berlin airlift, the erecting of the wall, etc. Borman, Lovell and Anders were interviewed and contributed their perspectives on the flight as well as on the experiences that happened as they came up through the ranks of test pilots and astronauts in training.

The God Particle by Leon Lederman -- a tremendously entertaining book covering much of the history of physics by one of the best known particle physicists. Lederman's book is interspersed with some of the most humorous stories I've ever read in a science book and I can't resist sharing two of them here. In an imaginary conversation with the greek philosopher Democritus, Lederman is talking about how elusive the Higgs particle is, and comments that the book's title refers to this particle, but that his publisher wouldn't allow the book to be called "The God-damned Particle. The second is from a discussion of building a piece of laboratory equipment to use in a particle accelerator. They acquired a 12 inch naval cannon to use as a collimator, and needed to fill it with beryllium as a filter, but the inside of the bore had deep rifling grooves. He sent a skinny graduate student inside the tube to stuff steel wool into the grooves. After a few hours of work, the graduate student crawled out all hot, sweaty and irritated and said "I quit," to which Lederman is said to have replied, "You can't quit, where will I find another student of your caliber?"

The Glass Giant of Palomar by David O. Woodbury -- The original account of the building of the 200-inch telescope, predating Florence's Perfect Machine by over 50 years. Woodbury's account has the advantage of proximity in time - he interviewed and walked among the men who were responsible for the construction of this instrument, and gained the confidence of many. The book is perfect mix of exquisite technical detail (e.g, his account of the development and construction of the R.A. and declination drives quotes from one of the original engineers and is delightfully incomprehensible) and poetic admiration for the vision that drove the project. He captured the very human spirit of the scientists, workman, technicians, and even janitors who worked on the project. His accounts of the fabrication of the glass by Corning are fraught with anxiety, the cross country trip of the mirror on rail are sprinkled with details of the difficulties of moving such an awkward object as a 17 foot glass disk.

Woodbury's final chapter of the 1939 edition contains a section on speculation as to what milestones might be accomplished with the 200-inch. From the perspective of hindsight, it is amusing to read of the doubt that existed in the astronomical community as to the veractiy of Einstein's theory of general relativity. The bending of light detected by Eddington during the solar eclipse of 1919 was regarded as only a preliminary test. Much cleaner data - which theorists said could be obtained from the study of distant galaxies - was needed.

Both this book and Florence's Perfect Machine are worth reading, and while they cover much the same ground, each is unique - Florence focuses more on Hale and his drive for "more light," while Woodbury focuses more on the majesty of the project. Five stars easily, for this 60 year old work!

The Great Copernicus Chase by Owen Gingerich -- A collection of 36 Gingerich articles that appeared in various magazines in the 1970's and 80's, all with a brief introduction by Gingerich. This collection is immensely entertaining, as he tackles such issues as Ptolemy's attempts to explain the motions of Mercury to the discovery of the Milky Way's spiral structure. Every essay is meticulously researched and will present a rich source for the amateur historian of astronomy and science.

Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System by Jeffrey Kluger -- A wonderful book on the history of space exploration. Kluger concentrates mainly on the initial efforts to reach the moon with unmanned craft, but has good sections on one of the Apollo missions, as well as Pioneer and Voyager. For a breathtaking look at the inner workings of a space mission, read this book!

June 8, 2004--Venus in Transit by Eli Maor -- A delightful short book about an astronomical event both dynamic and rare, and one that has an important place in the history of science. Venus is the closest planet to earth, and having an inferior orbit (closer to the sun than us), can occasionally be seen to cross the face of the sun - a transit. Such events can be observed with the naked eye (appropriately filtered) but are relatively rare, occurring in pairs separated by about 8 years, 100 years apart. Only five times in recorded history have Venus transits been observed, and Maor tells the story of each encounter painted in lively narrative against the historical backdrop of the times. From theorist Kepler, whose accurate calculations of the orbits of the planets first permitted accurate prediction, to observers Gassendi and Horrocks in the 17th century, Maor intersperses the story with well written nontechnical explanations of the celestial mechanics that lie behind the transit phenomenon, including the best explanation I have ever read of the reason behind the curious pairing of two transits just 8 years apart, with each pair separated by 100 years or more.

The historical importance comes due to the fact that as astronomers were slowly unraveling the mysteries of the solar system, the absolute distance scale remained elusive. Kepler's 3rd law allowed scientists to compute the relative distances of the planets from the sun, but absolute distances couldn't be obtained unless one knew the exact distance from the sun to the earth. In 1677, Edmund Halley observed a transit of Mercury, and realized that a transit event could serve as an excellent opportunity to obtain measurements of the transiting planet's parallax, from which could be calculated the distance of the transiting body. Then, using Kepler's 3rd law, the distances of all other planets - including the earth - could be calculated. Halley worked on the problem for almost 40 years, and in 1716 published a detailed plan for using the next transit of Venus to determine the size of the solar system. Already 60 when he published his plan, Halley knew he would be long dead before the next transit in 1761, but his scientific stature and eloquent appeal was all that was necessary - when the time came, the scientific world was ready (Halley's posthumous reputation was further enhanced when the periodic comet that now bears his name reappeared in 1758, just as he had predicted).

Alas, Venus transits proved not to be the answer to the scale of the solar system (exact timing of transit events proved unreliable due to Venus's thick atmosphere), but the stories of the explorers who traveled to the corners of the earth in 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882 are worth the price of the book. Maor concludes by pointing out that the upcoming event in June of 2004 will the only the sixth opportunity in recorded history to observe such an event, and while scientists are no longer watching for the same reasons as two centuries ago, the event will have enormous popular appeal.

Maor's book is wonderfully written, and will be of interest to amateur astronomers as well as those with an interest in the history of science.

The Last Man on the Moon : Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space by Eugene Cernan, Don Davis -- A marvelous account of an astronaut's career. Cernan is a great storyteller, with some amazing stories to tell. His account of spacewalk on the Gemini flight is terrifying.

The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting by Tom Standage

The story of the discovery of the planet Neptune is one of the most fascinating in the era of modern astronomy. Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Newton's unprecedented mathematical description of the law of universal gravitation allowed predictions of planetary positions to an accuracy of arcseconds.

In view of this successful mathematical description, Uranus' misbehavior was so bad that it was proving to be a continual embarrassment to astronomers, and the drive to find a solution was strong in the early to mid 19th century. The story of Adams in England, Le Verrier in France, and Galle in Germany has been told many times, and will be familiar to fans of the history of astronomy. Standage's retelling of the story is a good read, but probably adds little to Grosser's "The Discovery of Neptune" (1962). An interesting facet Standage adds to the picture has to do with the title of his book. The "file" in question belongs to George Airy (a notoriously anal record keeper). It contained correspondence, news clippings, etc., on the issue of the discovery of Neptune. Conspiracy theorists abounded in the years after the discovery, and some made the claim that Airy was in cahoots with Le Verrier in suppressing Adams' work to ensure that the credit would go to the Frenchman. Apparently Airy's file disappeared at some point during the last 20 years or so, renewing the conspiracy theorists' energies. Standage informs us late in his book that the file eventually turned up among the papers of a recently deceased former astronomer of the Greenwich Observatory. Examination of the file proved that there was no collusion.

This incident deserves further mention. Standage does not name the astronomer who had the file, nor the circumstances under which it was "borrowed." Nor does he elaborate on what was found there, other than exonerating Airy of the charge of conspiracy to suppress Adams' findings. Just who did have the file, and for how long? My own brief research revealed that an historian of science named Dennis Rawlins has written several articles about this situation, claiming a cover-up on the part of English astronomers, and alleging that the Neptune file contains a copy of Adams' original paper in which his position prediction is off by more than 12 degrees, and that a faction of "Cambridge" astronomers is conspiring to keep the contents of the file suppressed.

I contacted two historians of science, one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and one at Harvard. Neither knows of any evidence as to the truth of these allegations, and both attest that Rawlins tends to gravitate toward farfetched notions that mainstream science regards with suspicion. In fact, Rawlins doesn't publish his papers in mainstream journals, but in his own self-published journal "Dio."

At any rate, Standage's treatment of the issues was disappointingly brief and left me wondering if he was unable to dredge up any additional info himself.

Standage doesn't end the story with the discovery of Neptune and the international fallout over credit that ensued. He goes on to add the modern planet seekers, those who look for - and find - planets around other stars. Their challenge may be technically greater - to discern the minute wobbles of distant stars and infer the existence of planets, but they also have superior tools. Standage draws the parallel between their task, and the way Adams and Le Verrier inferred the existence of Neptune mathematically long before it was seen by astronomers. The comparison is perhaps valid, but the modern search for extrasolar planets certainly carries none of the intrigue of the Neptune story, where the search was carried out with paper and pencil and little more.

Standage's book is a good read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the details of the story. However, I would still recommend Grosser's book as the better account (minus the modern info), but I would even more highly recommend Richard Baum and William Sheehan's excellent "In Search Of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost In Newton's Clockwork Universe," a book which retells the Neptune story, possibly better than either Grosser and Standage, and adding the historical context of the planet Vulcan search as well.

I was frustrated upon finishing this book. I wished Standage had done the digging necessary to really tell the story behind the "file." Hopefully more will come to light of the contents of Airy's Neptune File, and will be published in some still unwritten account.

This New Ocean : The Story of the First Space Age by William E. Burrows

Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos by Alan W. Hirshfeld

Along the lines of Longitude, where Dava Sobel took us on a walk through astronomical history with the focus on the effort to determine longitude at sea, Hirshfeld's "Parallax" is an engaging historical survey concentrating on efforts to detect that minute wobble of stars. Hirshfeld focuses on the personalities and people - which makes this story enjoyable and even riviting.

Copernicus' view of the heavens had long since prevailed - no serious person of science doubted that the Earth and planets orbited the sun. But the acid test of the Earth's motion, slight displacement of stars in June and December, when the Earth is on opposite ends of its orbit, had still not been detected. This book traces the work of astronomers such as Bradley, Bessel and others in the quest for stellar parallax. Wonderful reading.

The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope by Ronald Florence -- A tale of modern engineering. The design and construction of the 200 inch Palomar observatory was possibly the first "big science" project of the modern era. Florence also provides much biographical information on George E. Hale, a necessity since the building of this telescope and the life of Hale were so intertwined as to be inseparable. Put simply, even if you have no background in astronomy or telescope-making, this book presents a story of a huge engineering undertaken. Nothing of the scale had ever been considered before and the designers and builders had to confront countless unique problems and invent new techniques along the way. This book is a classic in the history of modern astronomy, but enjoyable for anyone who loves reading about massive construction projects.

The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery by William Sheehan - Amateur astronomer and historian of astronomer William Sheehan provides a thorough account of the study of the planet Mars. He takes us on a chronological tour of the major developments, from the early pre-telescopic days of Kepler's work on the orbit, to the telescopic investigations, to the Mariner probes and Viking landers. Extensive treatment is given to observers such as Lowell, Antoniadi, Schiapaelli, and others, practically an "opposition by opposition" account. Sheehan's Mars is an indispensable addition to the library of any fanatic of the red planet.

In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton's Clockwork Universe by Richard Baum and William Sheehan -- Another gem of a book by William Sheehan, joined in this venture by astronomer Richard Baum. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Newton's theory of universal gravitation had enjoyed some incredible triumphs, and stood as a monument to the mathematization of science. Three thorny problems remained however, to disrupt the harmony of Newton's universe: the motion of the moon, Mercury, and Uranus. Sheehan and Baum tell the amazing tale of mathematics and astronomy in their pursuit of the answers to these puzzles. This book is a must-read for any buff of astronomy history - Newton, Horrocks, Clairaut, Laplace, Lagrange, and so on. Considerable time is given to the discovery of Neptune, first on paper by Adams and Le Verrier, and by Galle at the telescope. Sheehan and Baum's retelling of his historic tale is even better documented than Grosser's book on the subject. Finally, the problem of the shift in Mercury's orbit. The pressure to find a Newtonian solution was immense, given the previous victories obtained using Newtonian mechanics. Le Verrier was susceptible to this pressure, owing at least in part to his previous success with Neptune. However, this problem resisted even Newton, and was not finally solved until Einstein's theory of gravity supplanted Newton's early in the 20th century. The interwoven stories of astronomers and their diligent search for the elusive planet Vulcan are entertaining and provide a unique perspective on 19th century astronomy.

The Sleepwalkers : A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe by Arthur Koestler
A book amazing for its scope. This could be a one volume history of the revolution set in motion by Copernicus and completed by Galileo, Kepler and Newton, but many will disagree with some of Koestler's interpretations. Consider this one volume to supplement other individual biographies.

The Transits of Venus by William Sheehan, John Edward Westfall
William Sheehan is one of very few authors whose books I purchase as soon as they're published. Though not an historian of astronomy by profession, he is among the elite few who have contributed significantly to popular writings in that genre in the last 15 years or so. In taking on the topic of the transits of Venus, Sheehan, joined in this endeavor by John Westfall, has produced a magnificent volume that any amateur historian of astronomy will surely want to read.

As with all Sheehan efforts, Transits is meticulously researched and detailed, yet written in a lively and conversational tone that is a pleasure to read. Here will be found excellent scientific background: the nature of transits, the importance of transit observations in unlocking the value of the astronomical unit, etc. More importantly, to me, is the rich treatment of the history of transit observations. From Kepler's Rudolphine tables, where the first transits of Venus were accurately predicted, to the life and times of Jeremiah Horrocks, the short-lived English astronomer who first successfully observed one in 1639, to the massive international efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries, this work is filled with detail, photos, diagrams, and immensely satisfying story-telling. Here’s an example of the detail and rich prose:

"The long wait for a transit of Venus finally ended at 3:06:22.3 PM Honolulu mean time, December 8 1874, when George Tupman became the first person in 105 years to see a transit of Venus. He had two advantages that gave him a head start: the Hawaiian stations were the closest in the world to the Delislean point of earliest ingress: and he was observing with a spectroscope that allowed him to spot Venus against the sun’s inner atmosphere, the chromosphere, a full 39 seconds before it touched the visible solar limb."

Sheehan and Westfall's orientation is so decidedly historical that they make a surprising omission: There is no discussion of the reason for the curious spacing of Venus transits: a pair 8 years apart, followed by a gap of either 105 or 122 years, and then another pair 8 years apart. Perhaps this discussion, about which I think many readers would be curious, was omitted because it can be somewhat technical. More likely, they simply had to make some decisions on what to include and not include based on their particular slant.

At any rate, such an omission is more than balanced by what Sheehan and Westfall do include. I was overjoyed to read such exquisite detail about the observational and photographic instruments used to observe and measure the transits of 1874 and 1882. As far as I know, Sheehan and Westfall are the first authors to offer such thorough coverage in a popular work. There are also many photographs and drawings reproduced from this pair of transits, many more than I have ever seen in print before.

The much-anticipated Venus transit of June 2004 is fast approaching. Perhaps the rarity of this event makes it so compelling to me, as I'm sure it will to others as well. I can think of no better way to prepare than to purchase and read this excellent work.

The Whole Shebang : A State-Of-The-Universe(s) Report by Timothy Ferris -- A nice companion volume to Coming of Age. Ferris surveys the current state of modern cosmology and astrophysics. This book could serve as an excellent introduction or review of the state of such topics as string theory, the dark matter debate, the Hubble constant, etc. As always, Ferris' writing is clear and a pleasure to read.

Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950 : The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution by Donald E. Osterbrock - Yerkes observatory, of the University of Chicago, played a major role in the development of astrophysics in the early 20th century. Though quickly overshadowed by the larger telescopes of Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar in California, Yerkes in Wisconsin managed to stay near the forefront of scientific research throughout the 1930's through the 1950's, largely through the efforts of director Otto Struve. Osterbrock's excellent book is largely the story of Struve's success as a director and research leader. Well written and thoroughly documented, this book is an important addition to the history of astronomy in the US.

Back to Books