Five Books is an Internet website that invites an expert to discuss in interview format five books that they recommend in a given discipline or academic area. Somebody recently drew my attention to a Five Books interview with pop science writer Dava Sobel asking my opinion of her chosen five books. Although I actually own all of the books that she recommends I have serious problems with her choices that start with the title of interview, The best books on The Early History of Astronomy recommended by Dava Sobel.
I remain a sceptic about a lot of the claims made by archeoastronomers concerning supposed astronomical alignments of various archaeological features but I am quite happy to admit that Stonehenge, for example, does have such an alignment, which would place early astronomy at least the third millennium BCE. Maybe astronomy and not archaeoastronomy was meant it which case we would be in the second millennium BCE with the Babylonians. Perhaps Ms Sobel thinks astronomy doesn’t really start until we reach the ancient Greeks meaning about five hundred BCE. But wait, all five of her books are about astronomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE! This is not by any definition the early history of astronomy. What is in fact meant is the early history of the Copernican heliocentric theory.
We now turn to the books themselves. I should point out before I start that I actually own and have read all five of the books that Sobel has chosen, so my criticisms are well informed.
First up we have Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read. This is not actually a book on the history of astronomy. Doing his years of research into the history of astronomy Gingerich carried out a census of the existing copies of the first and second editions of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, which I also own. The Book Nobody Read is a collection of personal anecdotes about episodes involved in the creation of that census. Sobel also repeats a major error that Gingerich made in choosing his title.
Five Books: And that is why the 20th century author and journalist Arthur Koestler dismissed it as “the book that nobody read”, which is something that Owen Gingerich is at pains to correct with this book.
Sobel: Yes, he is referring to Koestler’s comment with his title. This was the insult hurled at Copernicus’s book because it is so long and mathematical.
During his census Gingerich recorded the annotations in all of the copies of De revolutionibus that he examined showing that people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did indeed read the book. However, Koestler’s comment was not addressed at those original readers but at the wanna be historians in the nineteenth century during the Copernicus renaissance (Copernicus effectively disappeared out the history of astronomy in the early seventeenth century and only returned with Kant’s “Copernican Turn” in the late eighteenth century leading to the concept of the Copernican revolution), who claimed that De revolutionibus was mathematically simpler than the prevailing geocentric model, as Koestler showed this was not the case prompting him to make his famous quip about “the book nobody read.”
Next up we have Robert Westman’s The Copernican Question. Now I’m a Westman fan, who has learnt much over the years reading almost every thing that he has written. However, The Copernican Question is a complex highly disputed book that I would not recommend for somebody new to the subject.
Sobel’s third choice is Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, once again not a book that I would recommend for a beginner. To understand Sidereus Nuncius you really need to understand it in the context in which it was written. There are also several comments made by Sobel that are to say the least dubious.
Sobel: This is a thrilling book. It is the moment that astronomy became an observational science.
Astronomy has always been an observational science!
Sobel: Until Galileo’s time, the most that anyone could know about a planet was where it was.
You could also determine its orbit, its speed and its apparent relative distance from the earth.
Sobel: With his telescope Galileo was able to determine the composition of the moon.
Galileo could determine that the moon was not smooth but was mountainous like the earth, which is not quite the same as determining its composition. We had to wait for the Apollo Programme for that.
Five Books: How did he manage to get hold of the telescope?
Sobel: He had heard of such a thing being invented as a novelty and so he figured out how to build one. And although at first he considered it a military tool, which was passed to the navy in Italy to keep watch on the horizon for enemy ships, he very soon realised he could turn it skywards. So he made these amazing discoveries and published them.
The telescope was not invented as a novelty; its inventor, Lipperhey, offered it to the States General in the Dutch Republic as a military tool. There was of course no navy in Italy; in fact there was in that sense no Italy. Galileo offered his telescope to the Venetian Senate, in fact to be able to observe ships approaching the port earlier than with the naked eye, both for trade and military purposes.
Number four is Stillman Drake’s Galileo at Work. On the face of it an excellent choice but however one with a slight blemish, Drake is a straight up Galileo groupie, which makes his descriptions and judgements somewhat less than objective. Here once again we find a more than somewhat strange claim by Sobel
Five Books: And the church didn’t have an issue with what he was doing?
Sobel: Not at that point. The minute he started agreeing out loud with Copernicus and writing about it in Italian and not Latin then he became more controversial. The Sidereal Messenger is written in Latin but soon after that he switched to Italian and that is when it became an issue. His controversial views were investigated by the Roman Inquisition which concluded that his ideas could only be supported as a possibility and not an established fact, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Galileo’s choice of Italian as the language in which he wrote his Dialogo had little or nothing to do with his trial and eventual condemnation by the Inquisition.
Sobel’s final choice is more than somewhat bizarre, Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers.
Five Books: Lastly, you have chosen The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler, which is an overview of that period, though he is not quite so complimentary about Copernicus and Galileo as the other authors you have chosen.
Sobel: Arthur Koestler was a journalist with an interest in science. He really got fascinated by this subject. So this book traces the early history of astronomy because he too found it fascinating. Unfortunately, as you say, he didn’t like Copernicus, or Galileo for that matter. The only one he seems to really have liked was Kepler. So one reads his book sceptically. But it is a book that was widely read and it had a tremendous influence on people. Even though it came out in the 1950s you still meet people who will talk about that book. And for many it was the book that got them interested in astronomy. I read it years ago as well and it has stayed with me.
Now, Sleepwalkers is without doubt one of the five most influential books in my development as a historian of science and I still have my much thumbed copy bought when I was still comparatively young, but it is severely dated and I would certainly not recommend it today as an introductory text on the history of astronomy. Koestler’s book started out as the first full length English biography of Kepler and this is why Kepler takes the central position in his book. On Koestler’s treatment of Copernicus and Galileo we get the following:
Five Books: Why do you think he was so scathing of Copernicus and Galileo?
Sobel: It is hard to say. He found Copernicus dull, and I admit that his book On the Revolution makes dull reading for a person who is not capable of understanding the maths. But Copernicus is far from dull.
Both Copernicus and Galileo acolytes detest Koestler’s book for his portrayals of their heroes. He didn’t find Copernicus dull he labels him “The Timid Canon “ because he thought that Copernicus lacked the courage of his convictions as far as his heliocentric theory was concerned. This is a hard but not unfair judgement of Copernicus’s behaviour. As far a Galileo is concerned, Koestler is one of the earliest authors to attack and demolish the Galileo hagiography, in particular with reference to his problems with the Church.
I wrote this blog post because one of my followers on Twitter asked my opinion of Sobel’s list. As I said at the beginning I own all of these five books and think all of them are in some sense good, however as a recommended collection for somebody to learn about the early phase of heliocentricity in the Early Modern Period I find it a not particularly appropriate collection.
This of course immediately raises the question what I would recommend for this purpose. I hate this question. I have acquired my knowledge of the subject over the years by reading umpteen books and even more academic papers and filtering out the reliable facts and information from this vast collection of material. The moment I recommend a book I start to qualify my recommendation but you must also read this paper and chapter 10 in that book and you really need to look at… On the whole I would recommend people to start with John North’s Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology and if they want to discover more to proceed with North’s bibliographical recommendations.