on 22 July 2001
Koestler gives a comprehensive account of the development of astronomy from the Babylonians through ancient Greece to mediaeval Europe and on to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. His development of the personalities, informed by copious reference to published works and particularly, where available, to the personal letters of these and many other people less well-known, brings them to life in a quite dramatic way. The notes and references alone occupy 54 pages. Koestler sees as "sleepwalking" the process by which the modern world slowly came to recognise anew the true nature of the cosmos after nearly two millenia of speculation and stumbling, constrained and dominated by Aristotelian nonsense. A particularly instructive quotation from Astronomia Nova(1609) by Kepler shows that he all but enunciated the law of universal gravity, "Gravity is the mutual bodily tendency between cognate bodies towards unity or contact.....so that the earth draws a stone much more than the stone draws the earth......If the earth and the moon were not kept in their respective orbits by a spiritual or some other equivalent force, the earth would ascend towards the moon one fifty-fourth part of the distance, and the moon would descend the remaining fifty-three parts of the interval, and thus they would unite. ...." By contast Newton wrote to a friend about 70 years later "That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another, at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else,....is...so great an absurdity, that no man who has ....a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it." The author demonstrates, again by copious references, that mediaeval churchmen such as Cardinal Nichlas of Cusa, far from suppressing science, were in the forefront of scientific thought; that it was an alliance between the Catholic Bishop Giese and the Lutheran Rhaeticus which finally persuaded Copernicus to publish his sun-centred treatise 'De Revolutionibus ..' in 1541; that it was Luther and Melanchthon who ridiculed this notion that the earth moved whilst the Catholic Church accepted it as a working hypothesis for 70 years; that Kepler begged Galileo in 1597 to state his belief in the system of Copernicus but Galileo declined for 16 years, being afraid not of the Church but of the "ridicule and derision" of his fellow scholars; when he eventually openly proclaimed Copernicus's fault-ridden system Kepler had already published his three Laws that revolutionised astronomy; that Galileo got his first academic post through the good offices of Cardinal del Monte and that he was honoured and feted by Cardinals and the Pope and the Jesuit astronomers in Rome following his discovery of Jupiter's moons. A comprehensive account is presented of Galileo's subsequent trials, which show that he was condemned (perhaps inexcusably) not for his scientific views but rather for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of Scripture. This book is far from light reading. It makes considerable demands on one's concentration and memory, but the effort is made worthwhile by the depth of scholarship, the copious research, and the mastery of narrative with which the author provides us.
on 22 October 2003
Sometimes you have a book that you read over and over again, just for the pleasure. The Sleepwalkers falls into this category for me ! I got this book more than 30 years ago, and have read it many times. Not so long ago I was stupid enough to lend it to someone. It is now time to read it again, for I need to satisfy my soul with stories of great discoveries. So I will have to buy the book once more, and this time it stays on my bookshelf !
It is easy for us to believe that the Earth goes around the Sun. We accept it just as our children accept mobile telephones, without questions. Koestler tells the story of the men who discovered how the Solar System works. From a flat earth with the devil at the horizon, to the planets spinning eliptically around the Sun, Koestler puts us in the context, so we can understand how a handful of great thinkers shook the foundations of science (and religion), and how they sometimes risked their career or even their life in order to uphold their "heretical" proposals.
You would think that Koestler was in the room at the time of the happening. He is one of those story tellers that builds climate, background, declines the personalities of his actors, and then tells a damned fine story. You find yourself holding your breath as each chapter unfolds, almost as if it is by chance that these great scientists (Galileo, Kepler, etc.) discover the truth. Happily, all the stories finish well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief when we reach the last page.
The cosmos as we know it today can continue to exist, and by chance, Koestler was there to tell us the whole story.
on 13 October 1997
This is one of the most richly rewarding books I have ever read. It succeeds on several levels: as a history of the science of astronomy; as a series of very human biographies of the visionary astronomers who made landmark discoveries; and mostly as a brilliant discussion of the evolution of human thought as it comes to grips with the infinite. Koestler has a ferocious intellect-- the reader can almost warm his hands by the glow-- which he uses to illuminate and find meaning in a series of challenging topics. For me, this was a truly magic book, beautifully written.
Called the 'the indispensable intellectual' by his biographer, prof. Michael Scammell, and frequently described as a polymath, I have to confess that, for myself, I only know Koestler so far via this book. There's controversy around the suicide pact he and his wife partook of, brought on by his terminal illness, and I've also heard that he's been criticised by some in the sciences, though exactly what for I can't recall.
Well, I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, his book on the history of astronomy, enormously. Like Carl Sagan he has a gift for sharing his enthusiasm that is contagious, and these are colourful people and fascinating tales that he's covering. Watching Sagan's Cosmos, I grew hungry for more info on such figures as Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Gallileo, and Kepler. And Koestler's book has proven to be perfect for me, as that's exactly the kind of thing it delivers.
His thoughts on the schism between the two poles of what one might simply call 'the spirit' and 'the material' (the kinds of ideas that produce such polarities as arts vs. science, and/or religion vs. science) are interesting, but are also areas I'm less clear on. But when he's simply telling the stories, such as that of Kepler and his family, and the times they lived through (Kepler's father is thought to have been a mercenary soldier, they lived during the tumultuous Thirty Years War, and as well as working and moving around because of the war, Kepler had to defend his mother against charges of witchcraft!), it's absolutely gripping stuff. Like a novel, only better, inasmuch as this is about real people, and the gradual unfolding of real knowledge.
I'd definitely recommend this to those wanting to learn more about our continuing fascination with our place in the cosmos.
on 13 August 2008
...somewhat spoiled by the audible grinding of Koestler's favourite axes - ESP, a little dig at Marxist interpretations of history, and so on.
On the latter point, I couldn't help feeling that he rather underplays the impact of economic development on intellectual development. Every so often it almost peeps through -- the telescopes that were made by spectacle-makers rather than astronomers or scientists, for example. And who was it that was so keep on getting better astronomical tables? Navigators rather than astrologers, I suspect. And those instruments that the astronomers used? Who designed and built them, and for what?
On a similar theme, why not at least a passing comment on the contrast between what the academics were teaching and what craftsmen and engineers must have understood to do their jobs - they couldn't have been applying Aristotelean physics, could they?
Still, this is a great book, and I thoroughly agree that every sixth-former (especially science students) should have to read it.
on 10 August 1997
Animated and opinionated, but thorough and conscientious study of the interrelationships between Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.
on 27 November 2001
I first read this book a good many years ago and I have re-read it recently. Now I am buying for my teenage niece. She is 13 years old and very interested in science; I think she will find it an interesting and challenging read. The thing I particularly like about this book is the AK sweeps aside many popular misconceptions about the history of cosmology, for example, that some of the arguments against the Copernican system where quite reasonable and that the position of the church was complex rather than dogmatic.
A physicist friend told me about this book, endorsing it as the best and most accurate treatment of the elucidation of the motions of the planets. When I picked it up, I found myself transported not just to the early Renaissance, but to Greece, where the story begins with Pythagoras and others. Koestler approached this as a lone intellectual, rather than an acacdemic, which means that he went back and read all the original sources to see things for himself rather than rely on secondary texts. That gave him a vivid feel for what these discoverers thought and did that is sadly absent from most survey histories available.
The result is a unique master work, in which you feel you get to know Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo as well as their classical predecessors. The science is explained as are the dead ends, and some harsh judgements made: Koestler was not timid! He also succeeds is putting the discoveries into context, as the standard against which scientific discovery has come to be measured.
Though I studied this in high school physics, this is what truly made this period come alive for me. I will reread this for years to come.
on 17 May 2015
A historical account of the rise of astronomy, written from a very human perspective. You will probably enjoy hearing about what some of the characters well-known from textbooks, like Galileo Gallilei, were actually like. For example the full story is told about how his run-in with the Catholic Church was largely avoidable and not as sometimes presented an inevitable conflict between science and religion, but more a result of him getting into scraps with old-guard Aristotlian academics! Very readable.
on 9 May 2013
WEll its not often that I can find myself hoping for more after reading a long dense history of a bunch of astronomers! I was most disappointed in this book that it did not cover Newton in the way it does Kepler or even Galileo. While I am aware of some of his personal history I loed Kosteler's descriptions and work on the others so much I would have loved to read his take on Newton. Anyway this shouldn't detract from the book but give perspective of how good the rest was.
While I was aware that the Galileo case wasn't so clear cut science versus the church as it is sometimes portrayed, this certainly a good book for giving you some perspective on how the fight was mostly bought on by Galileo for more or less his own personal vanity and inability not to insult his intellectual opponents or (in the case of Urban VIII) his erstwhile allies, and probably by forcing the churches hand to draw a line in the sand which actually slowed their adoption of heliocentrism. Tom Paine's aphorism about time making more converts than reason is certainly somthing we should be aware of.
Koestlers last section about the divorce of science from reality and morality and humanities generally I am in two minds about but it is still somewhat thought provoking.
Anyway excellent stuff and well worth a read for anyone the least bit interested in the area.