This book provides snapshots of twenty of the most influential figures in the development of astronomy, showing them not as dry theorists but as living products of their times, genuinely striving to find the truth.
Starting with Aristotle and ending with Newton, the book follows – apart from a slight digression due to competing theories – the development of the current model of the solar system out of the classical earth-centric model of interlocking spheres. Each chapter focuses on the major contributions of a specific astronomer, using a mix of traditional narrative and letters, from the perspective of real and fictional characters. Following each chapter, Read includes as brief statement of which parts are drawn from real sources and which are based on likely figures and events of the time. Without these explanatory sections at the end of each chapter the depth of characterisation would make it very difficult to judge which characters are merely invented.
All of the chapters are written in a casual modern style. This could be initially jarring to a reader familiar with the prose style of a particular age, but rapidly becomes unobtrusive and greatly improves the accessibility of the ideas.
Although the language is modern, the details of how people lived and what they believed are authentic. Each of the astronomers is shown as part of the wider religious and political structure of their day. While religion and science are often seen as adversaries by the modern world, as Read indicates in his introduction, these men and women believed not only that they were compatible but that they were two parts of the same question.
The stated purpose of this work is to rectify the trend in science to focus on the current correct theory rather than the path of revised imperfect theories that lead to it. Although it deals only with a few key moments from twenty astronomers, it fulfils this admirably, giving the reader both a flavour of the theory if they wish to pass on and a starting point if they wish to explore further. In fact it exceeds its purpose: by leading the reader through the stages by which the brightest people of their generation dealt with the observable differences between the real world and the astronomy of their predecessors not by abandoning the past but adding complexity to the models, it reveals that science does not advance smoothly toward a final truth but often improves an existing theories until it can no longer adequately deal with new facts.
The book does not contain any illustrations, which makes picturing some of the nuances of the theories harder. However, knowing the exact complexities is not necessary to understand how ideas developed and clashed across time and nation.
I have read many textbooks on philosophy and the history of science, so many of the facts were not new to me. However, I still enjoyed reading this book immensely. I therefore recommend it to anyone who is interested in either how astronomy developed or how science exists within rather than apart from human concerns.
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair review.