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Book Reviews


Hindsight and Popular Astronomy

Author: Alan B Whiting

Publisher: World Scientific

ISBN:978-981-4307-91-8

Price: £25 (Hb) 273pp


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Author Alan Whiting attempts to explain where nine astronomy books, published at various times between 1833 and 1929, may have revealed errors by their authors, ranging from Sir John Herschel to Sir James Jeans. “The aim of this highly accessible book”, we are told by the publisher “is to develop tools for the non-scientist to evaluate the strange and marvelous results that astronomers report...”. This is an ambitious aim, with the author advising in his introduction that some of his content “needs careful thought. There doesn't seem to be any way around this; the Universe can be a complicated place.”

Fair enough, but what follows is a scholarly evaluation of the work of six astronomers – Sir John Herschel, Sir George Airy, Simon Newcomb, Sir Robert Ball, Sir James Jeans, and Sir Arthur Eddington – in their attempts to reach a wider, and in more recent times, non-technical audience. Whiting's resulting analysis is packed with detail, but the author's warning was well made, and this reviewer found most of the book heavy going. The illustrations, all in black and white, are linked directly to the text and are not engaging in themselves.

Perhaps a subject-driven approach to errors and misconceptions in astronomy over the years would have been more appealing. For example, such earlier misinterpretations as geocentricity, lunar maria and Martian canals are the kind of pegs on which a view of astronomical progress could be hung, with an expert like Alan Whiting explaining how they have been defined by his chosen authors. But a glance in the index will show only two entries for the last-named anomaly, the fabled 'canali' on Mars, and there are no index entries for either their 'discoverer' Schiaperelli, or Percival Lowell who championed them. Incidentally, the index is no more than adequate, and is curiously preceded by some miscellaneous entries before 'A' – something else that this reviewer failed to understand.

The author has worked hard to reach the average reader, but the book has all the hallmarks of an academic text being ever-so-slightly adapted for a commercial market, and falls short of representing 'popular' astronomy. If the author has worked hard, so will the reader.

Alex Mullay

 

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