This enjoyable book is a series of reinterpreted stories about famous astronomers and key figures in the history of astronomy, from Aristotle to Newton. Many of the characters in this book will be familiar: Ptolemy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler etc., but there are also some who are less well known, such as Proclus, Richard Swineshead, Regiomontanus and Rheticus. Only one female astronomer, Hypatia, is represented, but there is a chapter about Tycho Brahe as told by his wife, who worked alongside him in his observatory. The stories are often written in a colloquial style, sometimes using the vernacular of the present day to make the narrative sound current. Some stories are presented as letters, others as conversations, some are told by the historical personalities themselves and others by real or fictional people who are connected with them in some way. Each chapter is followed by a page with information about the historical figure and the events mentioned in the chapter, clearly stating how much of the story is fact and how much comes from the writer’s imagination.
A common thread running through all the stories regards the evolution and exchange of knowledge, from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment. Each story or historical figure is connected too, or references others in the book and, whilst some characters may be significant astronomers who made revolutionary discoveries, other characters had an important role to play in the way that knowledge was disseminated at the time. For example, King Roger II of Sicily and Cardinal Bessarion were not astronomers, but they are given as examples of people who aided the transmission of scientific knowledge – including astronomical texts – from the Islamic and Byzantine Empires into the libraries and universities of Europe. The unifying theme of the book was how our view of the Universe gradually changed, with some difficulty, from geocentric to heliocentric.
Entertaining and briskly written, this a jolly good read for anyone interested in the early history of astronomy.
Reviewed by Isadora Fontaine