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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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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