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The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 8 May 2003
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Packed with information as it is, Hoskin's short introduction makes an astonishingly good read. (Curtis Wilson, JHA)
About the Author
Michael Hoskin taught History of Astronomy at Cambridge University for thirty years and was head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. He is a Fellow of Churchill College and Emeritus Fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge. In 1970 he founded the Journal for the History of Astronomy, which he has edited ever since. He is a former President of the History of Astronomy Commission of the International Astronomical Union, and the only historian to have given an Invited Discourse to the Union. In 2002 the Union named Minor Planet 12223 'Hoskin' in his honour.
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It is somewhat misleadingly titled as it’s not a “History of Astronomy” but a history of West Eurasian astronomy until about the mid-19th century when astrophysics began to develop. Chinese and Indian astronomy are ignored. We are told on page 10 that ever since the time of Eratosthenes “everyone with a modicum of education has known that the earth is spherical”. Everyone in Christendom and the Islamic world, perhaps, but when the Jesuits reached China they found that the consensus view amongst the highly educated elite was that the earth was flat. (Chinese astronomy produced a large mass of observational data but little useful theory).
After a brief review of what little we can know of what was known in prehistoric times there is a solid chapter on Babylonian and Greek astronomy. Here I feel the author is remiss not to mention Aristarchus as knowing that the geocentric theory was around for almost two millennia before it was widely accepted puts the reluctance of people to accept Copernicus’s resurrection of it into better perspective.
This is followed by another good chapter on medieval Islamic and Christian astronomy. (After this the author is on safer ground in ignoring non-Western astronomy as from the mid-1400s the history of Western astronomy is the history of astronomy).
Chapter 4, “Astronomy Transformed” covers Tycho, Kepler and Galileo. This leads on to a chapter on “Astronomy in the age of Newton” where Hooke receives generous treatment.
The final chapter takes us out of the Solar System and into the exploration of stars until the point where astrophysics takes off.Read more ›
In telling the story of astronomy in antiquity, our focus is largely on the planets, having been considered as stars that behaved in a peculiar way (hence the term 'planet' - meaning, wanderer). The puzzle, as seen from a modern perspective, is that of why the planets which are further out from the sun than earth appear to have retrograde motion. The history that then follows is the history of the ideas put forward by means of explanation as well as a little history of the people behind their ideas. As might be expected, we come across figures such as Tycho Brahe, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton.
In telling this history, the book's strongest point is in showing the detail behind the basic outline that most science students know. Our modern model of planets in elliptical orbits around the sun did not come about by a sudden eureka moment, but by a series of gradual shifts in thought.
The book ends in the early 19th century. Hoskin considers that at this point astronomy ceased to become a subject in its own right and became subsumed within physics and chemistry. So readers hoping for a history that included modern astronomy may well be disappointed. If that is the case, then I recommend following up with Peter Coles' Cosmology VSI. For while it is interesting enough, there was nothing that grabbed me by the lapels to make me remember it.Read more ›