Tag Archives: astronomy

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.

Book Review: Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Coles

It is rare for me to walk into a bookshop and walk out again without buying at least one book; more often than not, it’s two or three at a time. This was one I picked up in the summer when I went to visit the royal observatory and national maritime museum in Greenwich, as there was an exhibition on at the latter which was on the subject of cosmology. There were various options open, though I chose not to get the enormous hardback book full of images from the Hubble space telescope.

For those of you who are unaware, I studied maths at university, with a particular emphasis on mathematical physics. In my first year, I took a free elective module in cosmology. So while I do review this book as an expert in the field, I do review it as an informed and educated amateur.

Of all branches of all the physical sciences, cosmology is by far the most far reaching. As far as we know for certain, biology is a science that is restricted to just one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy, in one cluster of the universe. Yet cosmology is concerned with all those other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies, in other clusters. In short, it’s about as close to a study of everything that we reasonably have a name for. This is a far cry from the social sciences, such as economics, which are wholly human inventions and have no basis in nature. It’s this broad scope that has always fascinated me, though I admit this blog doesn’t always reflect the amount of time I spend thinking about it and marveling at it.

So how can Peter Coles, in 127 pages, do justice to such a vast topic? He begins with beginnings. He gives us an overview of how past civilizations have thought of what we would now refer to as the universe, or cosmos or heavens. In particular, the idea of how they came to be. After all, it seems a very human question to ask “how did this all begin”. The wealth and breadth of information that could be covered by any number of creation myths throughout history would be enough to fill the space Coles had available many times over. So he was given a tough hand to play with, knowing what to leave out and what level of detail to include. What he gives us is a few interesting pages that will require significant follow-up on the part of the interested reader. We get a whistle-stop tour that I felt was a little shallow. It provides some illumination, but little more than that provided by Rigel onto a street in rural Northumberland. It felt as though it was a request made by the editors rather than part of the plan of the author. Only in chapter 2 does he really get motoring.

So it is that we jump straight into Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This he does by wordy explanation and a few diagrams, all of which will be familiar to those who have studied the subject before. But this is an introduction and it should be accessible to the non-expert reader. As far as it does, Coles does very well, I think. He avoids getting bogged down in too much detail. Though some readers may wonder “how do they know that” I can say that the answer lies in the mathematical detail from which we are spared. This is an inherent problem in any science writing, but Coles deals with it as well as anyone could reasonably be expected to.

From the basic equivalence of gravitation and acceleration, he looks at some of the large scale geometry of the universe and the principles of symmetry and isotropy. It was nice to see mention here of Roger Penrose, for whom I have particular liking as it was one of his theories I studied for my Master’s under the tutelage of one of Penrose’s former students. All this is laying the groundwork for a later chapter, though first he moves away from some of the theoretical side, which had been the focus so far, onto the experimental side. Specifically, this was the work of Edwin Hubble on the redshifts of galaxies.

I would imagine almost any reader who is interested enough to pick up the book will have some assumption or expectation that it concern the Big Bang at some point. In that, Coles doesn’t disappoint us. What he does do though, is lead us along the historical path that (mostly) late 19th century into the 20th took. So having looked at the work of Hubble and Einstein he asks the reader “so what”? If we can show that the universe is expanding and, given what we know of general relativity, does this imply anything? It is this question to which the Big Bang is the answer we now give.

In his description, Coles takes in some important factors which may be new to some of the informed-but-not-expert readers, about particle physics and the unification of the forces of nature. Here, a very little quantum mechanics is thrown in, but not so much as to scare anyone off, hopefully. Interestingly, he makes reference here to the Higgs boson as the particle ‘responsible’ (if you will allow me such laxity with terminology) for mass. But it’s worth noting that the book was first published in 2001 and so this section is already a little out of date. Indeed, with such an exciting, fast-moving science such as cosmology, one might almost hope or expect that any such book would be out of date soon. I do not know if it is due for a revision in light of the discoveries of the last decade or so.

In some ways, the Big Bang is the highlight of the book. Or at least the climax of it. The early chapters led up to it while the later chapters show the consequences. In these, he looks carefully at the density of energy and matter in the universe, asking how this will affect the future of the universe. There is also a more astronomical take on cosmic structures, which is not something I got round to studying at university, but which is nonetheless fascinating and mind-boggling in its beautiful complexity.

The book closes almost with a recapitulation of the aims of Einstein in his later years. Here we return very much to the theoretical end of science (though some might harshly call it speculation) and ask questions about the unification of all known forces, as well as looking at the anthropic principles (strong and weak). The final chapter seems designed for the reader to ponder. These are open questions to which we don’t have anything resembling a firm answer as yet. These are the questions which make us think, which make science interesting.

In giving his overview, Coles has done as good a job as anyone who had been tasked with such a feat might be expected. At the points where physics starts to overlap or infringe upon philosophy, some might disagree with his particular take, but that is no great criticism. Science is, after all, a human endeavour, subject to the whims and emphases we each put on it, even if that simply be in the questions we ask. For those who had not studied cosmology but were interested, then I would recommend it. For those who simply want to be a little more informed, this isn’t a bad starting point, though there are plenty of references for further reading where one can get a little more depth than is covered here. I can’t say it knocked my socks off, though that may come from over-familiarity with much of the topics covered, and they were done so in a “standard” way. So maybe not one for the expert reader. But good, nonetheless.

Book Review: The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by Lawrence Principe

This was another of the books I received for my birthday. It is also a continuation of my addiction to Oxford University Press’ series of Very Short Introductions.

As can be supposed from the title, this is the telling of the story of how modern science emerged. The story of that emergence, however, must be told from something that might loosely be called a beginning. As such, much of the text is devoted to matters that we might no longer regard as being part of the scientific mainstream.

However, in telling the history of science, Principe gives the reader due warning against anachronistic thinking. In this respect, the book makes for a pleasantly refreshing change from some modern sneering of the ideas prior to the scientific revolution. An example of this might be found in how Principe looks at the origins of humanism in the first chapter, noting that its origins are complicated and shaped rather differently from its current dominant form.

Having sketched out the medieval origins of the scientific revolution (for more on this, I recommend God’s Philosophers by James Hannam), one might think Principe would simply move on, but this isn’t really possible. To understand this one period of history, Principe constantly points us to its origins. If there’s one lesson hammered home here it’s that the scientific revolution didn’t emerge out of some sort of act parthenogenesis.

An example of this is his look at how the ideas of Aristotle influenced science, not least in how things are connected, the subject of chapter 2. There’s a great little treatise on magia naturalis here which is well worth a read, as it contains a good warning about dismissing past views that are now discarded as being superstitious.

Having laid these foundations, Principe goes on to look at two major topics: the superlunar world and the sublunar world. This mostly covers what we would now know as physics and chemistry, though given the phase in history which is being looked at, chemistry wasn’t really developed yet, so Principe uses the term chymistry instead. Without recapitulating it here, these are fantastic chapters which are evident of Principe’s rigour and faithfulness to the history of the period.

Having looked at what we would recognise as these two areas, the next, naturally was biology, and indeed that is the subject of the following chapter. We get a whistle-stop tour of anatomy and microbiology, though in his brevity, there is no great loss suffered. Indeed, I could hardly praise Principe’s writing enough, as he maintains the reader’s interest from start to finish.

This could never be a comprehensive review of the period and all the developments that occurred within it. But insofar as giving the reader an excellent grounding, this is a work I would thoroughly recommend. There are, of course, references and lists of further reading on each subject. But if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of science, please do read it.

Book Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

I freely confess that as the years count up since I left university, my favour for working through the details of science has somewhat diminished. This has been replaced by a far greater interest in the history of science and the lives of those who have been instrumental to the progress of our collective understanding of how the world and the cosmos functions. When The Age of Wonder was released a few years ago to many rave reviews, it was not long before it found its way onto my reading list. However, it was not until Christmas 2012 that I received it as a gift. Indeed, this is the last of the books I received for Christmas which I have read. As is my habit, for a particularly long book such as this (it runs for 490 pages plus appendices) I read it rather slowly. In fact, I think I started reading this towards the end of March.

So what’s it all about? In short, it’s a history of science from the late 18th century up to the mid 19th century. But it is so much more than that. Holmes has pieced together a brilliant narrative, held together with some fascinating links. The main link is the person of Joseph Banks, whose story dominates the first chapter, but who keeps cropping up at the start of the subsequent chapters, as Holmes recounts the stories of Mungo Park, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. There are many other characters that Holmes deals with, including those who pioneered manned balloon flights, though I think he has expanded that chapter into a whole new book subsequent to his writing The Age of Wonder.

Subtitled ‘How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’ the book does have a distinct feel to it, for including a good discussion on the link between the arts and the sciences. This is most keenly felt in his chapter entitled ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Soul’ where the talk is a real mix of science and the lives of the romantic poets. He finishes with an epilogue in which he advocates the removal of any supposed barriers between science and other fields such as religion, art and ethics – a stance I wholeheartedly agree with.

The narrative style that Holmes chooses is executed with aplomb. I have to say the book was a pleasure to read, perfectly paced and with something interesting on just about every page. For most of the book I just wanted to keep reading, hoping it wouldn’t end; and for a long time it didn’t. It was only when we got the deaths of William Herschel and Joseph Banks that it seemed right that the book draw to a close, which it did shortly afterwards. As a piece of writing, the quality was superb. The Age of Wonder has jumped into my all-time list of best science books, and possibly the best of any books.

So who would I recommend this to? Well, just about anyone; it’s excellent. An utter joy to behold and one I may well return to. I certainly won’t be donating it to a charity shop. So you’ll have to go out and get your own copy.