[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B003H4VZ0U” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51qks3kNIlL._SL160_.jpg” width=”105″]Did you know that Tycho had a metal nose, Newton died a virgin, Galileo lied to Venetian masters that he had invented the telescope, and Kepler’s mother was notorious for spiking peoples drinks with psychedelic drugs and was in danger of being burned as a witch? These are just a few of the little gems sprinkled throughout this wonderful astronomical science history. It’s not a new book, it was first published in 2005, but I just added a Kindle copy to my hardcopy version and so am reading it again. It certainly bears rereading for it’s packed with anecdotes and insights. I was going to say “If only science history was taught like this at school”, but a quick search of Amazon shows there’s study plans for the book so perhaps science history *is* taught like this now?
The book begins with mentions of China, Korea and Egypt but quickly comes to the ancient Greeks. Of the ancient Greeks the standout, in terms of accuracy, was the geometer Aristarchus of Samos. It was he who first proposed in detail a helio-centric model of the planets. sadly his book is lost, although I haven’t yet given up hope that in some mountain cave, or buried trove, in a funeral mound or concealed chamber there are a cache of ancient books: full volumes from all the great ancient authors from whom we now only have the barest fragments. All we have of Aristarchus’ book is a mention by Archimedes.
Archimedes was engaging in what would now be termed “popular science” when he wrote the King of Syracuse and offered an amusement in the form of calculating how many grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. To make the demonstration more impressive he chose the biggest universe model he knew of: the helio-centric model of Aristarchus. It’s by this passing reference we know of his work.
And we are only at page 37 !
This book is brimming with colorful historical anecdotes, insights, thought experiments and problems presented in such a way that you feel you are reliving the process of discovery.
It’s intriguing to ponder the Ptolemaic cosmos of epicycles and the dilemma that faced early cosmologists as to whether it should be considered merely a useful mathematical tool for plotting the position of the planets, or should be taken literally. And in later times the problem that the comparative ratios of distances were known from the Sun to the inner planets, but no distances were known. Even more infuriatingly two methods were available to discover a distance but each had practical problems. The book reads like a mystery novel: how will this latest conundrum be solved?
Highly recommended. But don;t just take my word for it, have a look at the Amazon review ratings, it’s extremely rare to see such a cluster five five stars!
If you have a favorite anecdote from the book please let me know in the comments. Or maybe you’ve discovered an even better history then you *must* let me know 🙂
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