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

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…