520: The Story of Astronomy by Peter Aughton

by Gerard


520: Aughton, Peter. The Story of Astronomy: From Babylonian Stargazers to the Search for the Big Bang. London: Quercus, 2008. 217 pp. ISBN 978-1-84724-186-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 520: Astronomy and allied sciences

In preparation for Super Bowl XLVII tonight, I read something that had absolutely nothing to do with Super Bowl XVLII. Everyone’s looking for a tie-in today, but I don’t have one. My interest in televised sporting events and my interest in books are 99.9% separate (the exception will be Dewey section 796, which is the section for sports). No, folks, today’s book is an in-depth look at the Earth, the stars, and the surrounding cosmos: Peter Aughton’s Story of Astronomy.

Aughton’s book goes through exactly what it purports to: you get a decently thorough history of astronomy from the Babylonians all the way to the Mars Rover project and NASA’s newest findings from the Hubble. It’s kind of hard to write a better summary than that. We get the stories of earliest calendar makers, who tried to time the heavens precisely to match the seasonal cycles of their culture (which almost always fails to conform to nice, neat numbers). The most interesting thing I kept encountering in this book was that either astronomy is often times used to solve another problem or other fields often inform the science of astronomy. Our study into the heavens is constantly intertwined with the study of ourselves and our world.

For instance, astronomy was the first field consulted when the problem of longitude needed to be solved. The stars were a great guide for figuring latitude, but longitude proved much trickier. It actually took the simple wisdom of a clock-maker (and not the stars) to put that problem to rest. Also, when quantum physics came into vogue, it hastened the conversion of astronomers into astrophysicists, which allowed for a more dynamic and intricate study of the stars.

Aughton’s writing is pretty good, but gets a bit bogged down when he discusses the finer points of Copernicus’s and Brahe’s mathematical models of the solar system. On the whole, though, it’s a great book to get introduced to the entire field of astronomy. The illustrations are top-notch and the science is pretty straightforward. All in all, a very interesting read.