Skip to main content

The Story of Astronomy – Heather Couper & Nigel Henbest *****

Of all the sciences, astronomy is probably the one that most often grabs us when we’re young. If you want hands on experience of particle physics or cell biology you need to be in a lab. To get practical experience of astronomy all you’ve got to do is go out on a dark night. I think this explains the enduring appeal of the BBC’s The Sky of Night programme. It’s years since I watched it regularly, but I’ve only got to catch the opening of that theme music to get a lump in my throat. Astronomy has a universal appeal, and the team of Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest tell it wonderfully in this highly approachable book.
The great thing about The Story of Astronomy is the way it tells the story of thousands of years of discovery through people. It is genuinely engaging and fascinating. Whether we’re hearing about Copernicus and Galileo or Hubble and Leavitt there’s a whole host of individuals helping us to fill in what genuinely is a story with good narrative thrust. A lot of it inevitably is familiar ground. (There’s quite a lot of overlap, for example, with my own Light Years – since light is the main vehicle for exploring astronomy – and it takes a very similar people-driven narrative approach.) Even so, the authors manage to keep it fresh. For example I found the section on the discovery of Pluto and its (very sensible) demotion to a minor planet had plenty that was new to me, and kept me turning the pages.
There’s only one gripe I had with this book that nearly made me drop it down to four stars – the authors insist on repeatedly including little interview snippets where people we’ve neither heard of or, frankly, care about keep putting in their opinions. It’s fine to have little interviews in a book if the subject is directly relevant to the topic. So, say, with Jocelyn Bell Burnell on pulsars. But not these regular visits to historians of science and such so they can throw in a bon mot. It smacks too much of a book trying hard to be a TV series (‘Look, we’ve got talking heads and everything!’), it breaks the flow, and I really don’t like it.
That apart, though – and it’s relatively easy to ignore – this book is delight and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in looking up at the night sky. Which should be all of us.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…