Book Review: The History of Astronomy – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Hoskin

I am still working my way through books I received for Christmas, and this small work was the last of those I received from my parents. The reason for putting it in on my wishlist was simply that it appealed to my joint interest in science and history. Those of you who read much of this blog can hardly have failed to notice my fondness for the subject with reviews such as this, this or this.

In this account, we 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.  This 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. I must confess that I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, so while I normally write my reviews as I read and then tidy up straight after finishing, there has been a period of gestation to mull over this work. Or maybe it was not so much gestation as a period of forgetting. 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.

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