Celebrating the best of visual astronomical history over four centuries.
Last Updated July 15 2020
Well, since its launch in November 2018, my new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, has now received 25,000 downloads!
A Big Thank You! to all who have supported my work over the years, despite some personal setbacks.
Latest review form The Observatory Vol 120 (February 2020) reproduced, with permission, here:
Chronicling The Golden Age of Astronomy consists of a preface, acknowledgements, and a table of contents followed by 41 chapters in roughly historical order, and concludes with an appendix and index. This book contains such a wealth of information there is not enough room in this review to comment on everything in detail.
I shall only cover some of the most significant highlights. There are very few
typographical errors, and even though a multitude of diverse topics are covered
they are presented in a very readable style, the transition from one subject to
another flowing smoothly. It should be on everyone’s shelf and provide many
evenings of education and entertainment.
The preface should be read first because it explains the author’s aims.
The first chapter describes Thomas Harriot, the first British telescopist and
a contemporary of both Galileo and Hans Lippershey. Sadly, Lippershey is
not mentioned anywhere in the text. The idea of the telescope spread quickly
through Europe and many people caught on to the technique of its construction.
History grants credit to Hans Lippershey (of the Netherlands) and Galileo
because they were the first to publish the most detailed description of its
design, and especially Galileo who documented his astronomical observations
in detail. Simon Marius of Germany also constructed a telescope and published
his observations, though after Galileo. Galileo openly condemned Marius.
Apparently Galileo had a caustic personality and was antagonistic to several
high church officials. This no doubt contributed to his being brought to trial.
The story of these early inventors (except for Lippershey) and observers is well
described in the first three chapters. Chapter 5, describing the development of
speculum mirrors, tells of more obscure telescope builders and observers and
deserves a careful read. Chapter 7 covers the extensive observations of Thomas
Jefferson in more detail than many of the large number of biographies published
about him. It does not, however, mention Benjamin Banneker, the first black
American astronomer, whom Jefferson hired to do surveying work.
In Chapter 8, which runs to 39 detailed pages, the author goes extensively
into the Herschel dynasty of William, John, and Caroline in a manner that holds
your attention fast and gives you the impression that you are on the scaffold of
William’s great telescopes. Amazingly this writer learned that William Herschel
met the great scientist James Watt, but Watt’s name is not mentioned in the
index. Chapter 9 describes how the Earl of Rosse at Parsonstown followed
Herschel’s exploits and after several years of struggle was able to construct a
72-inch reflector with two interchangeable mirrors. Speculum tarnishes rather
quickly and has to be re-polished. Two mirrors reduce the downtime of the
instrument. The later invention of silver or aluminium on glass eliminated this
problem. Despite the low reflectivity of speculum the large diameter of the
mirror permitted the spiral structure of nearby galaxies to be identified.The 72-
inch remained the largest telescope in the world for many years and prominent
astronomers of the day like George Biddell Airy, Otto Struve, Sir John Herschel,
James Nasmyth, and William Lassell, among others, visited.
In my 60-year-plus pursuit of astronomical literature I attended many events
and casually met several of the people mentioned in this book. Most of them
grew old and passed into history. One, however, became a friend. I ran across
a classified advertisement in an astronomical publication about some lunar
journals for sale. The advertiser was Tom Cave, manufacturer of Cave Astrola
Telescopes and a well-known lunar and planetary observer. I phoned him and
he invited me to pick them up at his home in Long Beach, California. When I
arrived we started to talk about our mutual interest. I listened to his stories far
into the evening.Tom knew everybody that was anybody in astronomy. I wound
up spending many evenings for the next few years listening to his stories until
shortly before his death in 2003. If I had thought to take a tape recorder his
stories would be priceless. If anyone deserves a biography it is Tom Cave.
The other prominent person in this book I had more than a passing
acquaintance with was John Dobson. Dobson was the father of modern sidewalk
astronomy and the inventor of his namesake the Dobsonian telescope, a design
that made it easy to transport and operate a relatively large amateur instrument,
usually eight to twelve inches aperture or larger. His design could have made
him millions but he never patented it. He was not money-orientated. Several
manufacturers cashed in and produced and sold thousands. They dominate
most star parties today. I met John through Gerard Pardeilian who had spent
many years learning how to grind, polish, and figure telescope mirrors. He
ran the weekly Saturday night star party at the Lawrence Hall of Science in
Berkeley, California. I volunteered during the 1970s to assist operating the
telescopes. Gerard, although like many in the optical industry not professionally
educated, had become a master optician and worked at the prestigious Tinsley
Laboratories and later became a master optician at the Lick Observatory optical
shop in Santa Cruz, California. He helped design and construct a massive
spectrograph for the Mt. Palomar 200-inch telescope. On page 628 it states
that the corner of Broderick and Jackson Streets was Dobson’s favourite locale
in San Francisco. The reason was that the sidewalk astronomers were either
renting or given use of a large house at 1600 Baker St. a few blocks away. They
stored and constructed their telescopes in that building and could easily dollie
them to the corner of Broderick, which undoubtedly was in the shade of a
large building.When John had to move I went over with some other people. He
kindly presented me with several boxes of journals and several surplus eyepieces and prisms. Page 629 states that a light bulb was used to test their telescopes.
Gerard informed me that they actually used the reflection from a street light on
a telephone pole insulator a mile away. It acted just like a point source as a star
would. It was then possible to figure their mirrors on cloudy nights.
A detailed reading of some chapters will demonstrate how expert observers
using relatively small apertures could obtain amazing results, far beyond what
most observers today would think possible. This is one of the finest books on the
history of visual astronomy I have ever read. Virtually every sentence conveys a
bit of history, and it is remarkably illustrated with sharp photographs. I can only
suggest that every reader obtain a copy. The writing is excellent. The 653 pages
of text are too short to contain everything of the rich history of 400 years of
observing. Observers and constructors, such as Jack Marling the filter expert, Al
Nagler of eyepiece fame, Charles F. Capen the Mars observer, comet hunters
like Lewis A. Swift, William Robert Brooks, and John Tebbutt among others,
either glossed over or neglected, should be covered in a following volume.
Continue your story Neil English!
Leonard Matula, The Observatory, Vol. 140 (1274), February, 2020
A review by Dr. Guillermo Gonzales( Professional Astronomer) and co-author of Privileged Planet with Jay Richards. Posted with the Permission of TouchStone Magazine.
Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore
by Neil English
(665 pages, $219.99, hardcover)
Reviewed by Guillermo Gonzalez
When I was asked to review Neil English’s new book on the history of visual telescopic observations, I jumped at the opportunity. Before I became a professional astronomer, I spent many nights (and some days) observing the heavens with my 8-inch f/7 Newtonian reflector in my homemade, backyard, roll-off-roof observatory in the suburbs of Miami, Florida. When I look through the eyepiece of a telescope to observe a planet, the moon, or a deep-space object, I feel I am making an intimate connection with the great observers of years past. And I can share in their joy in reading God’s great book not written with words and freely accessible to all with normal vision.
Unfortunately, Chronicling is far from free. Only a relatively few individuals with a strong interest in science history and telescopic observation will want to hand over $200+ for a copy. I would think that school libraries with a substantial science section are the most likely purchasers.
English is eminently qualified to write this book, having been a regular contributor to the British amateur astronomy magazine Astronomy Now for 25 years. Evidence of this can be glimpsed in some of the book’s 41 chapters, wherein he employs his extensive background knowledge to bring helpful insights to bear on historical questions. For example, in 1611, at a meeting with members of the Collegium Romanum, Galileo had the members look through his telescope. Some claimed they could see nothing through the telescope. English notes that this is likely because Galileo’s telescope had a very narrow field of view and required placing the eye just right to see through it (20).
The chapters in Chronicling are arranged roughly chronologically, but each is self-contained. Each is about an astronomer, a telescope, an important published work, or an astronomical phenomenon. Though together they are an eclectic mix, the emphasis in each chapter is almost always on history, often in the form of a biography. The main exception is the chapter on Walter Scott Houston’s “Deep Sky Wonders.” English also interweaves astrophysical concepts throughout, and he even throws in a few equations. At times, a chapter might resemble a college-level introductory textbook on astronomy.
Still, the book is an easy read and includes many illustrations. English has a gift for presenting history in an engaging way. He makes all sorts of connections between the subject of a given chapter and that person’s contemporaries.
Men of Faith
Why would a reader of Touchstone be interested in this book? I can give several reasons, some of which are obvious. For instance, there’s the “Galileo Affair.” English writes that “the mythologized view of Galileo standing for truth and reason versus religion and superstition of the Roman Catholic Church is not at all accurate” (20). Historians of science know what science popularizers don’t, and English has clearly read the former’s books (which he lists at the end of the chapter). His lengthy chapter on Galileo is an excellent summary of modern scholarship.
Those interested in topics related to science and faith will not be disappointed. From the very first chapter, English does not shy away from discussing the religious beliefs of the telescopists. For instance, Thomas Harriot actually turned his telescope towards the heavens before Galileo did. But how many atheist–narrated TV documentaries on astronomy would also mention that Harriot translated the Lord’s Prayer into the Algonquin language? (8).
In fact, most of the telescopists of the Golden Age of Astronomy were Christians. A number were Jesuit priests, such as Christoph Scheiner (Chapter 1) and Angelo Secchi, the “father of modern astrophysics” (Chapter 22). Several were “clerical astronomers”: William Dawes (Chapter 14), Thomas Webb (Chapter 15), and Theodore Philips (Chapter 30). Of Webb, English writes,
Despite the growing power of scientific naturalism with the later Victorian society, Webb couched everything, with firmness and gentleness, in terms of the Biblical God he believed in. Seen in this light, his astronomical writings, and his devotion to exploring the wonders of Creation with his telescopes, were more like prayers than anything else.
As if it even has to be said (and sadly it does), the evidence is clear that having a strong Christian faith does not hinder a person from being a successful scientist. On the contrary, the great works of many of the telescopists English describes are testimonies to the motivating influence of their faith.
To the believer, this should not come as a surprise. More than other aspects of the Creation, the starry heavens seem to evoke from us a sense of the divine. The Psalmist wrote,
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)
Kepler voiced eloquently what other great astronomers must have believed, that he saw himself as a kind of “priest of God” at the pulpit, reading the “book of nature” as an act of worship, to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”
A Rare Sneak Past the Censors
What did catch me off guard were some of English’s comments on Darwinism. For instance, when commenting on Percival Lowell’s ideas about life on Mars, English writes, “To begin with, scientists were gloriously unaware just how complex even the simplest forms of cellular life were during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . Lowell, like Darwin, thought the cell to be merely composed of blobs of protoplasm” (386). Later, English comments thus on Lowell’s beliefs about life beyond Earth: “Many scientists anticipate that life will be commonplace in the galaxy, but this is based on Darwinian reasoning. However, there are many scientists who now doubt the Darwinian paradigm and do not expect life to be commonplace, as has been widely believed in the past” (397). English is qualified to comment on Darwinism, as he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
I agree with English’s stance on Darwinism, but what surprised me was finding his comment in a book published by Springer. The editor must have been asleep at the keyboard! It also is interesting that English lists Hugh Ross’s book, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Baker, 2016), in the sources to the Percival Lowell chapter. He lists another of Ross’s books in the sources to the chapter on Clyde Tombaugh (Chapter 32). We are in a sad state when the censorship of certain scientific ideas in the public square has become so common that we feel we must jump up and cheer when someone boldly sneaks a few “forbidden” thoughts past the censors.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in amateur and professional telescopic astronomy, the history of science, and the relations between science and faith.
British Astronomical Association(BAA) Review by Archivist, John Chuter
Cloudy Nights Review
Stargazer’s Lounge Review
“This is an excellent book and will complement Ashbrook’s Astronomical Scrapbook and therefore have wide appeal to both amateur and professional astronomers.”
Wayne Orchiston, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Southern Queensland.
New Citation here
To Be Continued……………………….