Authors Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest have done much to popularise astronomy and this book continues that mission. However, it covers much of the same territory as their 2007 book The Story of Astronomy. Repeat appearances are made by Stonehenge, the ancient Antikythera Mechanism, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and right up to Fred Hoyle.
It has more to say than its predecessor on exoplanets and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, however, and there is fresh material on CERN, inflation theory and the Rosetta mission.
The best thing is, Couper and Henbest are great storytellers with an eye for a colourful character – not least the unsung heroes of astronomy who missed the limelight because they were years ahead of their time. There’s rector John Michell, for example, who postulated the existence of black holes in the 18th century, and the maverick Fritz Zwicky, who in the 1930s dreamed up the idea of dark matter.
The snippets of interviews – with Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, black hole expert Kip Thorne and others – introduce the reader to some of the greatest brains in modern astronomy. But more science specifics (and fewer exclamation marks!) would have been good. Kepler’s three laws are merely hinted at and not explained, though it wouldn’t have been very difficult for any reader to grasp them. The section on the cosmic microwave background doesn’t even refer to it as such but rather as the more emotive “afterglow of creation itself”.
Ultimately, the success of this book depends on hitting the right reader. Novice stargazers looking for an introduction to some of the great milestones and personalities of astronomy will want to read it; more knowledgeable astronomers will at least enjoy the enthusiastic storytelling.
Reviewed by Andy Sawers