Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Five top books on astronomers

Stuart Clark is a widely read astronomy journalist. His latest books are novels set around the times of greatest change in mankind's understanding of the Universe. The first book in the trilogy, The Sky's Dark Labyrinth, tells the stories of the lives and work of Galileo and Kepler against the backdrop of the extraordinary times in which they lived. The second book is The Sensorium of God, published in the UK in 2012.

With Daisy Banks of The Browser, he discussed five top books on astronomers, including:
Galileo’s Daughter
by Dava Sobel

You mentioned Galileo, which leads on to your next choice, Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. This book is more about Galileo’s relationship with his daughter, so what did it show you about astronomy?

What I think Dava did utterly brilliantly was ostensibly to write a book about Galileo’s relationship with his daughter but actually to reveal a lot about Galileo and science along the way. This story doesn’t show the greatest side of Galileo because Galileo put his two daughters into a convent, essentially because he couldn’t find husbands for them. And the reason he couldn’t find husbands for them was because he was a fairly poor astronomer, with expectations of grandeur, if you like, and he couldn’t raise a dowry sufficient to attract the kind of men he thought his daughters should be married to, which would lead to the correct social standing for his family.

But, to be fair to him, that was a fairly typical thing to do in those days – send your daughters off to the convent if you couldn’t marry them off – and from the letters he does seem to have got on with at least one of them.

Yes, they had an extraordinary relationship. In many ways I think it was the closest relationship he ever had with a female. Eventually they were living very close to one another and he would go and see her. I think what Dava did so brilliantly was show how, in his correspondence, they talked about his astronomy. They talked about his work and the trouble he was getting into with the church. The science does come through but in the most beautifully understated way.

What particular problem was he having with the church?

This is a fascinating story because it has been mythologised almost out of all recognition with reality. The traditional view is that Galileo proved that the earth went around the sun. The Vatican theologians thought this was impossible because of the way they interpreted the Bible so they tried Galileo for heresy. But the truth is much more subtle than that. It is much more intrigue-led and much more about power struggles and the nature of power.

Essentially, what Galileo’s observation was missing was that killer piece of evidence that the earth moves. He thought he had it in the tides. He thought the tides were the inertia of the ocean as the earth rushed through space. And the Vatican priests were open to talking about this and they were always open to reinterpreting the Bible so long as you could prove what you were saying. But no one would stand up for Galileo and say, “Yes, we believe the tides prove it as well.” And in fact they don’t. Galileo was mistaken and he was wrong.

Despite being wrong he still remains a massively important figure in astronomy.

Astronomy is fascinating in the way that it makes heroes of people who make discoveries. There are unexpected moments in which things can change completely. You suddenly get a deluge of new information.
Read about the other books Clark tagged at The Browser.

See Dava Sobel's list of five notable books on the early history of astronomy.

--Marshal Zeringue