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Book Reviews

Chasing Shadows
Author: Clemency Montelle

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

ISBN: 978-0-8018-9691-6

Price: £ 39.00 (Hb) 424pp

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This highly technical book, subtitled Mathematics, Astronomy, and the Early History of Eclipse Reckoning, is a unique account of how ancient cultures used mathematics to work out the phenomena of eclipses, their frequency, positioning in the sky and philosophical relevance. Dr Montelle’s book draws for the first time on ancient scripture as evidence and, at the end, the reader is in no doubt that mathematics was not invented, it was discovered. Furthermore, that mathematics was and remains at the heart of astronomical interpretation supporting an often romantic view of Solar System mechanics and its place within the cosmos.

The book is underpinned throughout by each enquiry into ancient societies, unknowingly at times, informing another. For example, how the astronomers of Mesopotamia developed a system of arithmetical patterns, that in turn brought about the basis of enquiry for the “Ancient near East” which was to have a “...profound impact on the ensuing major scientific literate societies (Greece, India, Iran, Egypt, Syria, amongst others) and their successor cultures.”

The strength of this book is Dr Montelle’s clear goal to decipher relevance for each succeeding culture she investigates, which breaks down our Western interpretations of ancient celestial conventions. All too often, readers are fed the astrology arguments as a way of masking scientific evidence, but Dr Montelle’s account opens a new case for real early astronomy. In some ways it confirms, perhaps, our previous assumptions as ignorance?

This book is systematic. Each chapter begins with a definitive overview that carefully introduces the reader to each culture but linking to previous debates. The chronology is set by a very well written introductory chapter titled ‘Heavenly Hide and Seek’.

Whilst being a very credible historical enquiry with almost the whole book relaying a new body of evidence to the minute existing evidence, Dr Montelle proves the mathematical case rather than relying on spiritual argument. The use in particular of trigonometry and logarithms to resolve the books intention, which is the ancients’ real understanding of eclipses, is logical and significant. This book undoubtedly leans toward the astronomical theorist and will, of course, also delight those astronomers who enjoy pure mathematics, but may not appeal to the amateur observing astronomer.

Ian Welland

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