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Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: Neil English


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Neil English

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy

A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore

  Hardcover: 665 pages

  Publisher: Springer International Publishing AG; 1st ed. 2018 edition (13 Nov. 2018)

  Language: English

  ISBN-10: 3319977067

  ISBN-13: 978-3319977065

  Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 23.5 cm

A personal review

From the outset I should mention that this is a massive tour de force, some 665 pages, profusely illustrated throughout, covering the history of observational astronomy and perhaps more importantly the   pioneer astronomers themselves. Whilst the chapters (all 41 of them) are laid out in chronological sequence for good reason, the sections can equally be read as standalone mini-biographies. The list includes some names that are familiar, from Galileo through to the Herschels, Charles Messier, Friedrich Bessel, Thomas Webb, John Dobson, democratiser of sidewalk astronomy in the 1960’s, and famously, the late Patrick Moore. There are many others who might not be so well known such as Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Will Hay, better known as a British comedy film actor of the 1930’s and 1940’s. George Alcock, comet and nova discoverer. David Levy, another of the great comet hunters. All did their finest work as amateurs, all totally dedicated to the pursuit of their hobby.

The author, himself an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, has a way of making history come alive. He has written with passion something that is both unique in substance and enjoyable in style. It is crammed with “I didn’t know that” facts as well as a most studious and very thorough account of an area rarely, if ever, covered in such depth – that is, the great visual astronomers and their contributions to our understanding of the Universe.

The often-used phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” becomes obvious as we learn how, incrementally, the optical telescope developed from a pre-Galilean spyglass to the unwieldy “arial “ refractor devices of the 17th century, some of which were literally hundreds of feet in length, to the development of lighter and easier to make mirrors rather than ever heavier and therefore more expensive lenses leading to the folded optics of the Newtonian type reflector, modern versions of which are still favored by today’s astronomers. Chapter by chapter the fascinating story unfolds, allowing us an insight into the ingenious ways that these pioneers dedicated their lives to the advancement of visual astronomy through trial and error, constantly struggling with sometimes huge financial cost and quite often with their health. This is their legacy, because when it comes down to it – the telescope is still the fundamental instrument of astronomy. It is the eye on the sky.

The latter part of the book is often punctuated by the author’s own visual comparisons of some of the subjects under discussion - very useful for anyone wishing to see for themselves what the original discoverers were viewing. Where possible he uses telescopes of similar size and type thereby helping to accurately recreate some historic observations.

Neil English used the phrase “Grand Amateurs” and I think that just about sums up this book. Highly recommended.



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I second azrabella's sentiments about this book. It is very well researched and contains a huge volume of historical information, much of which was completely unknown to me. English's telescopic experience is second to none and that comes through loud and clear in the book. It's amazing what history can teach us about our own hobby. It's an expensive book but I feel it is worth every penny. If you had reservations about this work, I'd say go for it!

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