Skip to main content

In the Shadow of the Moon - Anthony Aveni ***

This is a book with niche appeal. For a reader who is aware of Anthony Aveni’s specialist field of research, and who shares the same interests and outlook, it might be worth more than the three stars I’ve given it. On the other hand, a general reader buying the book at face value is likely to be disappointed. It’s a heavier-going and more specialised read than the packaging suggests.

The book’s subtitle is ‘The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses’, while the publisher’s blurb reads ‘In anticipation of solar eclipses visible in 2017 and 2024, an exploration of the scientific and cultural significance of this mesmerising cosmic display’. That led me to expect certain things even before I opened the book: a simple but lucid explanation of the science of eclipses, a description of how to observe them safely and what to look out for, and various quirky myths, superstitions and anecdotes connected with eclipses. The book does include these things, but they only account for about a sixth of the total page count. The rest focuses on a subject – history – that’s barely hinted at in the marketing copy.

Anthony Aveni is an anthropologist, and one of the founders of astroarchaeology as an academic discipline. Before I read this book, I thought ‘astroarchaeology’ was confined to speculating about the purpose of astronomical alignments seen in Stonehenge and similar structures. It does include that – and Aveni offers evidence that the builders of Stonehenge knew about eclipse cycles – but his main interest is in later cultures where the archaeological evidence is supplemented by written documentation. In this context, astroarchaeology becomes a much more robust discipline – a matter of interpretation rather than speculation.

I mentioned myths and superstitions, but those aren’t really what the book’s about. Regardless of what the uneducated masses might have believed about eclipses, many ancient cultures had people who understood perfectly well that they were caused by a close conjunction of the Sun and Moon, and that their occurrence could be predicted by extrapolating forwards from past eclipses. The ancient Greeks, Babylonians and Chinese all knew how to do this, as did Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya – the main focus of Aveni’s professional research.

The 80-odd pages dealing with the astroarchaeology of eclipses were the high point of the book for me. After that, Aveni’s history lesson (which goes on for another 100+ pages) got a little quirky for my tastes. There’s no mention of later Greek astronomers like Hipparchus and Ptolemy, who as far as I know were the first to make accurate eclipse predictions based on orbital modelling, rather than historical extrapolation. Similarly, Aveni skims rather too swiftly over the European renaissance, although he does give due credit to Edmond Halley, who was the first to produce a modern-style map of the Moon’s shadow passing over the British Isles (albeit after the eclipse in question, rather than before). By the beginning of the 19th century, however, Aveni’s focus has shifted entirely to the United States. I guess that’s fair enough, for a book that’s marketed in conjunction with the ‘Great American Eclipse’ of 2017, but he lost the interest of this reviewer at that point.

To reiterate, this is a book with a limited audience. If you’re interested in the social history of the United States and the role of astronomy in non-Western cultures, and if you’re not that bothered about the science of eclipses or European history, then you’ll probably love Aveni’s take on the subject. But if you’re a more typical popular science reader in search of a good book on solar eclipses, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

Hardback:  

Kindle 

Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…