The History of Astronomy

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Packed with color photographs, this comprehensive reference chronicles the history of astronomy.

This extraordinary book traces humans' interaction with the endless wonders of the night sky. The authors, both expert astronomers, researched 29 locations worldwide, from Beijing's ancient observatory to the observatory in Puerto Rico that searches for alien radio signals. They also interviewed 26 of the world's most esteemed astronomers, including Stephen Hawking.

Comprehensive in scope, The History of Astronomy covers such topics as:

  • Early navigators and astronomers, the Star of Bethlehem
  • Early concepts of the Earth's shape and orbit
  • Galileo and Copernicus
  • The solar system and the movements of the planets
  • Newton and Halley
  • The discovery of Uranus and Neptune, plus the discovery and demotion of Pluto
  • What stars are made of and why they shine
  • Hubble, the cosmos, new galaxies, the Big Bang
  • Pulsars, quasars and black holes
  • Are we alone?

Through its engaging narrative and stunning full-color photography, The History of Astronomy tells the remarkable story of a discipline that continues to test the limits of imagination and exploration.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist - Gilbert Taylor
Full-page photos and illustrations are the norm in this colorfully exuberant volume ... The authors' enthusiasm should excite readers new to the subject.
vol. 173 Science News
In this colorful and exuberant volume, astronomers Couper and Henbest guide the reader through times when astronomy belonged to religion, to philosophy, and, finally, to science.... Contemporary findings on galaxies, pulsars, quasars, and the Big Bang are addressed in a way to excite nonexperts of any age. And what better way to introduce the wonder of the cosmos than Arthur C. Clarke, renowned author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
American Reference Books Annual 2008 - Mark A. Wilson
This wonderful, colorful book shows the broad strokes of astronomical history... Fascinating biographies... Spectacular photographs, the authors have created a text that will appeal to any readers from grade school on up. The book begins with one of the best simplified accounts of ancient astronomy I have ever seen... The reader feels part of the story, and eagerly anticipates the next discoveries... Throughout the book the photographs and diagrams are first-rate, and the prose is generous... A magnificent book. This work is highly recommended for all libraries with science collections.
Choice - S. C. Hardesty
Couper and Henbest provide an excellent starting point for t hose interested in the subject.... This is a copiously illustrated, straightforwardly written volume that will appeal to readers with and without an astronomy background. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers and lower-division undergraduates.
Sky & Telescope - Jeff Kanipe
Highly readable... Replete with firsthand accounts, insightful comments...and numerous anecdotes.... If you've never been a big fan of astronomy history (all those old guys in wigs and ruffs), try it again with The History of Astronomy. Chances are you'll want to read this book cover to cover.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554075379
  • Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 8/28/2009
  • Edition description: Paperback
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,001,864
  • Product dimensions: 9.44 (w) x 11.30 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Heather Couper is an astrophysicist. She ran the Greenwich Planetarium, was president of the British Astronomical Association, is a professor of astronomy and produced the TV programs Universe and Electric Skies.

Nigel Henbest is a consultant to the Royal Greenwich Observatory and New Scientist magazine.

Arthur C. Clarke was the world's most famous science fiction author. He died in 2008.

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Table of Contents


Living with the Sky

Reading the Heavens

Wheels Within Wheels

The Earth Moves

The New Solar System

Beyond the Human Eye

Matters of Some Gravity

Planet Hunters

Powerhouse of the Stars

The Universe Beckons

Violent Universe

Are We Alone?


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'If have seen further than certain other men, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' So wrote Isaac Newton to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke on February 5, 1675.

In one stroke, Newton summarized the whole history of astronomy. It is an edifice built on the endeavors of countless men and women through the millennia; a vast pyramid of human achievement that points towards the sky.

The history of astronomy is so much more than the history of a science. It is a reflection of our culture: an insight into the development of humankind's ideas and ideals. Why else would we call the cosmic firmament 'Heaven,' and populate it with deities — like Apollo the Sun god and Diana the Moon goddess, along with Jupiter, Venus and the other planets? Why else would we map our long-cherished legends onto the sky, making them concrete as the constellation patterns? Why else have civilizations believed that the stars dictated their lives?

Our ancestors built monuments that are aligned with the heavens. From Stonehenge to the great Pyramids, from the native North American structures at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico to the mysterious mounds of Bronze Age Britain, it is clear that — in those un-light-polluted days — the sky was as important to humanity as events on the Earth.

With the passing of the centuries, we can only guess at the motivation behind these grandiose schemes: are we looking at cathedrals to the cosmos? What is certain is that almost every culture has a 'Creation myth' — which involves the simultaneous formation of 'heaven and earth.'

We are on firmer ground when we reflect on how our ancestors used the stars — for timekeeping, calendar-making and navigation at sea. Even today, a small cadre of Polynesian sailors are following in the footsteps of their forebears, who, around 2000BC,
started to explore the myriad islands of the Pacific Ocean, using guidance from the heavens.

'When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.' In Act II of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare encapsulated our other fascination with the sky: that heavenly events reflected life on Earth. The ancient Chinese believed that the sky was literally the mirror of the Earth, and that an unwelcome comet or exploding star indicated rebellion in the provinces. Astronomy and astrology were intertwined until the seventeenth century — when science kicked in.

The Greeks were the first to look to the sky with a scientific eye. How big was the Earth? How far away was the Sun? Does the Sun travel around the Earth, or the Earth around the Sun? How far does our cosmos extend? But with the demise of Greek civilization, the rationalist approach to the heavens virtually died. The flame was kept alive for a thousand years in Arab lands.

Then, in the 16th century, came the first great revolution in astronomy. The Polish canon Nicolaus Copernicus realized that it was easier to explain the motions of the heavens if he dethroned the Earth from its central position, and made it orbit the Sun.

The scene was now set for astronomy to change forever. In 1609, Galileo Galilei turned his 'optick tube' — the newly-invented telescope — towards the sky. Galileo made bold of his findings: that the Earth circled the Sun, and that the heavenly bodies were not perfect. The Moon was pocked with craters; and the Sun was spotty.

His forthright rebuttal of church doctrine led to Galileo being place under house arrest. But his legacy in astronomy and mechanics inspired a young Englishman, Isaac Newton, who was born in the year that Galileo died.

With his formidable mathematical brain, Newton worked out why bodies in space moved in the way they do: there was a new force to be reckoned with — gravity. At last, astronomers could calculate what was going on in the Universe, rather than just predict the future on what had happened in the past.

From Newton's time onwards, the pace of astronomy quickened. In the eighteenth century, a musician-turned-astronomer, William Herschel, literally doubled the size of the Solar System by discovering a new planet — Uranus. And he paved the way forward to exploring the wider Universe, with his investigations into the nature of the Milky Way.

Victorian astronomers had the bit firmly between their teeth. With the invention of photography, they could record their observations for perpetuity; with the invention of spectroscopy — which reveals the composition of stars and planets — they could work out the chemistry of the Universe. And with precision telescopes, they were at last able to measure distances to the stars.

As the twentieth century hoved into view, the astronomical community was getting to grips with the structure of the distant Universe. Was our Galaxy all that existed; or was it just one of billions of galaxies? The latter proved to be the case. And then — in one of the greatest discoveries of the last century — Edwin Hubble found that the entire Universe is expanding. As a result of the Big Bang, a colossal cosmic explosion which took place 13.7 billion years ago, the galaxies are all flying apart from each other.

And, very recently, a new revolution in astronomy has taken place — one as great as the upheaval in the era of Copernicus and Galileo. New technologies mean that astronomers are no longer limited to simply looking at the sky. They can now tune into the cosmos at a whole range of wavelengths — from hugely energetic gamma rays to low-frequency radio waves.

This recent cornucopia of data on the cosmos has told us in no uncertain terms — that we live in a violent universe. The safe, predictable, stars and planets of our ancestry have been replaced by wild worlds. Black holes, colliding galaxies, wayward planets and exploding stars are all out there on view.

But astronomers have are also accruing evidence that, despite all this disruption, there could be life somewhere else out there...

This book celebrates our changing perspectives on the Universe. Over the millennia, astronomers have established the true nature of our cosmos. At each stage, our planet Earth has seemed smaller and less significant. This changing perception has put astronomers at loggerheads with philosophers and priests alike.

Today, we have reached a humbling perspective on the Cosmos. The Earth is an average planet, circling a middle-aged star in an unremarkable galaxy. But we can be proud of one achievement: that our planet has developed a life-form that can gaze out into the Universe — and question what it all means.

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest

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