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Book Reviews


Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy
Author: Mary Bruck

Publisher: Springer in association with the Royal Astronomical Society

ISBN: 978-90-481-2472-5

Price: £90 (Hb), 278pp


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This is the first real account of women that were either astronomers in their own right or assistants that became astronomers during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Essentially the book assesses the period of the Enlightenment when much of philosophy became science and when particularly the grand amateurs led the way in astronomy. Although written in an academic style, the book will appeal to both academia and the general reader.

Bruck’s essays commence with an account of the fairly unknown Margaret Flamsteed (c1670 – 1730), wife of the first Astronomer Royal; and then in turn discusses the achievements of an array of others including Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848); Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872); Mary, Countess of Rosse (1813 – 1885); Jessie Piazzi Smyth (1816 – 1896); Elizabeth Brown (1830 – 1899); Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907); Annie Maunder (1868 – 1947); and Mary Evershed (1867 – 1949).

Important genealogy information helps place these deserving astronomers alongside their more famous male astronomical counterparts, many of whom were relatives, partners or husbands. Extensive anecdotes assist the reader in understanding whether their interest in astronomy came first ahead of any relationships or whether their interest grew after association. What is recorded clearly by the author is the long list of discoveries and achievements in vital areas of astronomical research, much of which has been previously taken for granted but now is set in context. The author weaves an impressive timeline and has linked up the essays chronologically as one astronomer leads onto or overlaps another.

The subtle conclusion to the book is a melancholic stanza from W B Yeats’s The New Faces. Yeats recalls the ‘old’ in shadow which is then transposed within the new faces that view into the historical abyss. This is the key message of the author and her quest to add light and break new ground in the known story of astronomy. I agree with Dr Allan Chapman in his foreword that “...as far as the study of women in astronomy is concerned, Dr Mary Bruck is an established pioneer”.

I am impressed by the wealth of new material included as well as the excellent referencing and bibliography.

Ian Welland

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