I bought this book to give me a grounding in the subject in preparation for my UCAS application and it provides a brilliant detailed introduction (so not so short) in the subject and covering the evolution of our understanding of the solar system and the universe. In particular I found it interesting how much more work Kepler did towards this than the more famous Galileo. It's only shortcoming for me is that it stops when astrophysics emerges in the 19 century (I believe) and I would have like to have seen it go up to the present day.
2 people found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?
This book is part of the OUP’s Very Short Introduction series of 100+ page books that can fit into your jacket pocket. 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. There follows a brief and appropriate epilogue on light which is, after all, what we see rather than the object itself. The book is well written and I would recommend it to the general reader. I noticed only one factual error, a small one. On page 72 we are told that John Harrison sailed to Barbados in 1764. In fact it was his son William who undertook the trip on behalf of his elderly father. However I am no expert and there may be other errors of which I am unaware.
In this work, Hoskin focus largely on a sequence of individuals, mostly from the latter parts of the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and on into the Scientific Revolution. Before that, though, there is an obligatory look at the early history of astronomy, not least looking at the work of Aristotle and Ptolemy, though even this preceded by "astronomy in prehistory".
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.
In the other editions in the VSI series I've read, they have come with great lists of references and further reading. Here, though, we have little more than repeated references to Hoskin's own work, which rather gives the impression that, though he is a subject matter expert, he hasn't written this a standalone book, but rather that it is a concise summary of his earlier work.
This is not an introduction to The History of Astronomy, but just snippets that show the author's bias. So Arabic astronomy is not mentioned, whereas pages are devoted to tombs in Portugal that point roughly eastwards - very odd! Some descriptions are poor or skipped altogether. Personally, I found it quite a frustrating book to read.
One person found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?