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A Passion for the Planets: Envisioning Other Worlds, From the Pleistocene to the Age of the Telescope [Paperback]

William Sheehan

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Book Description

19 May 2010 144195970X 978-1441959706 2010

Astronomy is by far the most popular of the physical sciences, enticing enough to become a major cultural preoccupation for many, and for some an enthralling scientific activity which veritably rules their lives. What is the nature of that seemingly unstoppable attraction? In this lively and compelling account, William Sheehan – professional psychiatrist, noted historian of astronomy, and incurable observer - explores the nature of that allure through the story of man's visual exploration of the planets.

In this volume, the first of a trilogy, Sheehan starts with observational astronomy’s profound and lasting effect on his own life, setting the points of embarkation for the journey to come. He travels across the historical landscape seeking the earliest origins of man's compulsion to observe the planets among the hunter gatherers of the upper palaeolithic, and traces the evolving story from the planetary records of the earliest cities, to Pharonic Egypt through to Hellenistic Greek astronomy culminating in Ptolemy. The necessity to observe played its part in the perceptual changes wrought by the Copernican revolution, as well as the observational advances achieved by such extraordinary characters as Tycho with his sharpest of eyes, and his luxurious practice of total astronomy. The two epochal advances published in 1609, both born through planetary observation, namely Kepler's discovery of the true nature of the orbit of Mars and Harriot and Galileo’s observations of the Moon, have a pivotal place in this account.

Sheehan weaves a rich tapestry of social and technological settings, patronage and personalities, equipment and skills, cosmologies and goals, motives and compulsions to try to explain why we have observed, and continue to observe, the planets.

The compelling text of A Passion for the Planets is enhanced by the specially commissioned planetary artwork of Julian Baum, himself son of a noted planetary observer and historian of planetary observers, and Randall Rosenfeld.

A Passion for the Planets will be of interest to all amateur astronomers; active planetary observers; armchair astronomers; those interested in the history of astronomy; the cultural history of science; and astronomical art.


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“Sheehan offers an interesting analysis concerning the effect of advances in art on astronomy and illustrates his points with selections of poetry and art. … illustrations and photographs are excellent. The footnotes and an index are useful additions. This work … will be of most interest to amateur astronomers. Summing Up: Recommended. Public libraries.” (M.-K. Hemenway, Choice, Vol. 48 (3), November, 2010)

From the Back Cover

Astronomy is by far the most popular of the physical sciences, enticing enough to become a major cultural preoccupation for many, and for some an enthralling scientific activity which veritably rules their lives. What is the nature of that seemingly unstoppable attraction? In this lively and compelling account, William Sheehan – professional psychiatrist, noted historian of astronomy, and incurable observer - explores the nature of that allure through the story of man's visual exploration of the planets.

In this volume, the first of a trilogy, Sheehan starts with observational astronomy’s profound and lasting effect on his own life, setting the points of embarkation for the journey to come. He travels across the historical landscape seeking the earliest origins of man's compulsion to observe the planets among the hunter gatherers of the upper palaeolithic, and traces the evolving story from the planetary records of the earliest cities, to Pharonic Egypt through to Hellenistic Greek astronomy culminating in Ptolemy. The necessity to observe played its part in the perceptual changes wrought by the Copernican revolution, as well as the observational advances achieved by such extraordinary characters as Tycho with his sharpest of eyes, and his luxurious practice of total astronomy. The two epochal advances published in 1609, both born through planetary observation, namely Kepler's discovery of the true nature of the orbit of Mars and Harriot and Galileo’s observations of the Moon, have a pivotal place in this account.

Sheehan weaves a rich tapestry of social and technological settings, patronage and personalities, equipment and skills, cosmologies and goals, motives and compulsions to try to explain why we have observed, and continue to observe, the planets.

The compelling text of A Passion for the Planets is enhanced by the specially commissioned planetary artwork of Julian Baum, himself son of a noted planetary observer and historian of planetary observers, and Randall Rosenfeld.

A Passion for the Planets will be of interest to all amateur astronomers; active planetary observers; armchair astronomers; those interested in the history of astronomy; the cultural history of science; and astronomical art.


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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but not great! 14 Feb 2013
By Michael R. Nofi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As a fan of Willian Sheehan's books I must say I was a bit dissapointed. I expected much more astronomy and less anthropology! Sheehan did not really convey how exciting and enlightning the experience of observing planets can be. He talks about it, but failed to adequately explain why we enjoy it so much. I would have liked more discussion on the fine art of seeing through the telescope to convey to non-observer's why we spend hours looking through telescopes at planetary images and how this can be a near mystical experience for many of us.

Sheehan understands this experience better than most and yet he failed to put it into words. Perhaps it is just too personal of an experience for words to describe. He does have some intersting things to say about the relationship of various people throughout history with the planets. He also does a good job of discussing, the ancient Greek astronomers and philsophers, including other luminaries of science such as Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo. There is also much more to be told of the story of man's relationship with the planets, especially as we move into more modern times. I think he ended the book too soon.

In hindsight, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to my fellow observers of the night sky. It is definitely worth the price in ebook form. The painting by Julian Baum are absolutley breathtaking.
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