`This is an extraordinary book', was my impression as I reached the end of chapter two. Far from being a dry history of the past four centuries of telescopic astronomy, I found a novel mixture of sound historical fact admixed with practical lessons in how to build astronomical equipment of the period, and much, much more.
It's really three books rolled into one; a sound historical overview, a practical explanation of the historical observations, and a useful reference with lists of deep sky objects, future planetary phenomena, conjunctions, transits and the like. The familiar historical outline of astronomy with all the usual characters is well told. The arrangement of the chapters follows a logical historical timeline, the main part being the early telescopic observations made by Galileo followed by Newton's development of physics, the observation and development of visual planetary astronomy and then that of extra-solar system observations. But throughout the book, and this is what I particularly liked, there was a lot of unfamiliar information and detail that brings this book bang up to date. For instance the Antikythera mechanism is rarely mentioned in other discussions of classical astronomy, Galileo's unintentional observation of Neptune is strikingly illustrated in juxtaposition with the view given by modern planetarium software, and I had not heard of Hodierna's list of 40 nebulae published in 1654, a century before that of Charles Messier.
What didn't I like ?...well, not much. The blurb on the back cover seemed a little harsh on the Church, but no big deal. In the body of the text there were some interesting omissions, like no reference to Horrock's and Crabtree's first observation of the transit of Venus in 1639. It is mentioned, but they aren't. Neither is Flamsteed's star atlas, Atlas Coelestis, for over a century the mainstay of European astro-cartography, whilst John Bevis does get a mention as producing a detailed and accurate star atlas in the mid-18th C (Bevis's Uranographia Britannica is so rare that only two dozen copies are known to exist). I also wondered about the inclusion of transient lunar phenomena in the discussion of lunar astronomy, very contentious but they may yet stand the test of time and establishment astronomy proved wrong. These are minor quibbles, there may be others, but they don't detract from a well researched and well presented book.
Galileo and 400 Years of Telescopic Astronomy is a refreshingly new way to present observational astronomy in its historical context and would be a great introduction to anyone starting out in practical amateur astronomy. It is definitely a `must have' for the bookshelves of school libraries and astronomical societies.
Kevin J Kilburn FRAS General Secretary, The Society for the History of Astronomy