Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: Still Going from Strength to Strength!

The perfect Christmas gift for serious students of historical visual astronomy.

 

Well, in the 18 months since it has hit the press, my new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy has now received  20,000 downloads!

A Big Thank You! to all of you who have supported my work over the years, despite some personal setbacks. 

A New Review by Dr. Guillermo Gonzales( Professional Astronomer) and co-author of Privileged Planet with Jay Richards. Posted with the Permission of TouchStone Magazine.

Stargazers’ Log

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore
by Neil English

Springer, 2018
(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

 

Endorsements:

“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……………………….

 

De Fideli.

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