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Astronomers you should know.

Revolutionaries of the Cosmos Ian S. Glass (Oxford University Press, 2006). 317 pages. ISBN 0-19-857099-6. $74.50.

GALILEO GALILEI, Isaac Newton, William Herschel, William Huggins, George Ellery Hale, Arthur Eddington, Harlow Shapley, and Edwin Hubble are all nicely profiled in this volume subtitled "The Astro-Physicists." In sprightly prose, often interlaced with quotes, Ian Glass weaves together these eight lives (warts and all) and their scientific careers. Together, these astronomers brought us from an Earth-centered universe to the realization that we live in one galaxy among countless others.

Although I had read biographies of all these celebrated scientists, each chapter presented many facts that were new to me or that I'd forgotten. Among my favorites are:

Galileo was something of an enfant terrible in Pisa and once was even fined for not wearing proper academic dress. In 1590, he wrote a satirical poem ... in which he suggested that clothing was the source of the world's evils and that humans should go about naked.

When we think of Sir Isaac [Newton], it is sobering to be reminded that his knighthood was conferred as much for [Whig] party political reasons as for his contributions to science!

Stimulated by [Herschel's] infrared discovery, Johann Wilhelm Ritter of Jena found in the following year that ultraviolet rays were very effective in blackening silver chloride--a property that turned out later to be the key to photography.

"Then it was that an astronomical observatory began, for the first time, to take on the appearance of a laboratory. Primary batteries ... a large induction coil ... several Leyden jars ... Bunsen burners, vacuum tubes, and bottles of chemicals ... lined its walls." (Huggins 1897)

The main event of that summer [1889] for Hale was his invention of the spectroheliograph, one of his most important contributions to astrophysics.

Fred Hoyle ... described [Eddington] as being paradoxically "among the world's worst lecturers and yet ... one of the best.... You remembered and thought a lot about the big issues he raised.... "

Shapley had shown that the sun was just an ordinary star at a great distance from the centre of the Milky Way! ... He delighted in pointing out "the solar system is off centre and consequently man is too, which is a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken."

It was apparently at this time [about 1922] that [Hubble] began to gild his past with tales of legal expertise, heroism and adventure.... He had become the best-known astronomer in the country [in the 1940s], partly through the efforts of a publicity agent that he employed!

Of course, these astronomers didn't work in isolation and often built their discoveries upon foundations laid down by others. Thus one might nitpick Glass's selection. Should other worthies have been given chapters--Edward Pickering, Karl Schwarzschild, Henry Norris Russell, or Walter Baade--for example? A strong case could be made for any of them, so it's good that they figure prominently in the eight biographies. My biggest criticism of Revolutionaries of the Cosmos is that it lacks planetary science as developed in the middle of the 20th century by such luminaries as Harold Urey, Jan Oort, and Gerard Kuiper. We can only hope that they are slated for a subsequent volume.

The index is very comprehensive though somewhat oddly arranged. For example, you won't find an entry for "galaxies" but you will find "dwarf galaxies" listed under Baade and Shapley, who both played a role in their discovery. So you have to know where to look. The bibliographic references and footnotes are abundant, but I'm baffled as to why the latter starts with "13" in the Hubble chapter instead of resetting back to "1" like the other chapters. Illustrations are adequate.

Glass studies the infrared at the South African Astronomical Observatory but is no newcomer to history. His latest book is a happy addition to any library, be it amateur or professional.

Sky & Telescope editor emeritus Leif Robinson does not miss the New England weather now that he overwinters in Costa Rica.
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Title Annotation:"Revolutionaries of the Cosmos"
Author:Robinson, Leif J.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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