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Book Review: “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries” by Govert Schilling

I’m a big fan of “timeline” books. You know, the ones that give you a detailed timeline of events relating to a specific subject or topic, helping you track the development or evolution of ideas or technology or just let you take a trip through history, seeing how things have changed. The problem is, although they’re very informative, most timeline books are big, fat, heavy affairs, and quite boring to look at: lots of text, teeny-tiny illustrations, they’re more like phone directories than reference books.

The Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries” is a timeline book with a difference. For a start it’s a truly handsome book, illustrated in full colour on very high quality paper, making it more like a coffee table book than a standard timeline title. But the man difference is it’s set out very differently: instead of giving a little bit of information about hundreds of different events in the history of astronomy, it just focuses what the author considers to be the 100 most significant events, describing each one in a full page essay, accompanied by a full page photo or illustration opposite. So this isn’t a book of lists, or tables, it’s a book of richly-illustrated articles, written by one of the most knowledgeable astronomy writers working today, Govert Schilling, whose name and work will be familiar to anyone who’s a regular reader of any of the monthly astronomy magazines.

So… the history of astronomy, narrowed down to 100 discoveries. That must have been a tough selection process! I know I wouldn’t like to try it! But Schilling has done a fine job, and in the process has written a delightful book which has something for everyone interested in astronomy, from absolute beginner to experienced observer, from self-confessed rock-hounds like myself to people fascinated and thrilled by dark matter and the mysteries of cosmology.

Some of the discoveries covered in the book are no-brainers, you’d expect them to be in any book dealing with the history of astronomy: Galileo’s discoveries of mountains on the Moon and moons around Jupiter; Piazzi’s discovery of Ceres; Hubble’s discovery of the true nature of spiral galaxies; the Huygens probe’s landing on Titan. But there are other less obvious – but no less fascinating or worthy – discoveries covered too: Johannes Hartmann’s discovery of interstellar material (1904); the discovery of the first gravitational lens (1979); the discovery of protoplanetary discs in the Orion Nebula (1992). Each of these stories is a fascinating one, and Schilling tells it in a very entertaining but accurate way, which is his writing style. He also takes great care to make these discovery stories personal and human, giving details of the people involved in the discoveries, not just the science behind them. Reading the text is like listening to a particularly good lecturer.

This is definitely a “dip into” book rather than a “read from cover to cover” book. You can open it up and, leafing through, find something that interests you personally. But the real reward with a book like this comes when you read the sections that deal with fields of astronomy that “aren’t your thing.” For instance, I’m very much a rocks and ice guy – I am fascinated by the planets and their moons, their geology, weather and topography. I am spectacularly unmoved by anything to do with dark matter, dark energy, or exotic particles. I just don’t care! There’s a voice in my head telling me they’re just best guesses, that in time some other fantastic theory will come along to displace them, and I’m much better off spending my time drooling over images taken by the Opportunity rover, Cassini or Dawn. But thanks to Schilling’s great writing even I found the stories of the discoveries of “The proper motion of the Milky Way”, “The Explanation for Superluminal Velocities” and “The First Gravitational Lens” quite fascinating.

Soooo… if you want a book that will lead you through the history of astronomy, one amazing discovery at a time, one excellent essay at a time, with beautiful illustrations, this is definitely a book you’ll enjoy. It’s a class above the usual “History of” book that clog up the astronomy sections of bookshops nowadays.

If I have any criticisims, it would be that there wasn’t enough about Mars in it forme, but I’m never going to be happy there, am I? :-)

“ATLAS OF ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES”

By Govert Schilling,

Springer

ISBN 978-1-4419-7810-3

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