Primers on the history of astronomy

The interesting thing about telling my physical science students at the Open University about my studies into the history of astronomy is how often they express interest themselves in learning more – especially since this academic year I am intending to do some fieldwork in archaeoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy seems to be very much of interest to lay-people and has even been featured recently in the official journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Astronomy & Geophysics, as an outreach tool.

So many of my students asked me if I could recommend any good books that I created a list of suitable resources that they might want to take a look at. And then I thought I’d start a blog series based on that list, because apparently it’s a common question and I have the answers. Note that these are all academic text books and sometimes their prices will reflect that (£500 textbooks from Springer-Verlag will be mentioned – there is no good reason why it should be sold for £500, only that they can get away with charging that – but that is what academic libraries are for).

So, let’s kick off with academic primers on the history of astronomy. All three were written with the intention that they would be used as textbooks for university-level courses on the history of astronomy. The first two were required textbooks for my master’s degree course on the History of Astronomy and the third was a similar book I found in the library of Swinburne University and eventually bought for myself in Blackwell’s (other booksellers are available).

Note that I am an affiliate so if you purchase anything after clicking from the following links I may receive remuneration, but if at all possible I recommend you read these texts via your local academic library:

The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy

The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, edited by Michael Hoskin. Covers archaeoastronomy up to modern astronomy (well in 2008). It’s quite a short book at 380 pages. Much of the book was actually written by Hoskin himself, although he collaborated with other experts including Clive Ruggles and Owen Gingerich. This book is based on a previous book the Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy and hence, as you would expect, features plenty of images.

Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology

I once read a biography of John North in which he was described as the best Professor of the History of Science Oxford never had. He had studied Mathematics, and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Oxford where he met his wife, before doing a degree in Astronomy, Physics and Applied Maths at London University. He eventually became a historian of science and worked as librarian at Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. But the Netherlands were where he spent the rest of his life as Professor of History of Philosophy and the Exact Sciences at the University of Groningen and such was his dedication to his new home that he rapidly became a fluent Dutch speaker. Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology was published shortly before his death in 2008. Cosmos covers much the same ground as Hoskin’s taking the reader from the activities of Neolithic people right up to the re-classification of Pluto. However, while Hoskin’s book is fairly slim, Cosmos has 876 pages and is not a quick read.

The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy

The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy ends with Kepler’s discoveries rather than bringing the reader to the twentieth/twenty-first centuries. Another way in which this book differs from the previous two is in its approach. Whereas the first two books are intended to be merely read, this book teaches you how the ancient astronomers actually worked and gives step-by-step instructions and photocopiable sheets so that you can actually make and use an astrolabe or a planetary equatoria.

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