The best books on the history of astrophysics

Who am I?

Barbara J. Becker received her PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University. Until her retirement, she taught at the University of California at Irvine and now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a leading authority on astronomer William Huggins. Her research interests include the role of the amateur in the development of nineteenth-century professional astronomy, the redefining of disciplinary boundaries in the face of new knowledge and new practice, and the role of controversy in shaping the substance and structure of scientific knowledge. She is the author of numerous journal articles and editor of Selected Correspondence of William Huggins (2 volumes).

I wrote...

Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

By Barbara J. Becker,

Book cover of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

What is my book about?

Unravelling Starlight is the first scholarly biography of William Huggins (1824-1910), a retired London silk merchant and self-taught amateur astronomer who was celebrated in his own lifetime as the "father" of astrophysics. 

Based on new evidence on Huggins's life and career gleaned from his unpublished notebooks and correspondence, Unravelling Starlight provides a fresh look at his pioneering contributions to the development of astrophysics and sheds important new light on his collaborative work with his wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915).  In 2015, it was awarded the prestigious Donald E. Osterbrock Prize by the History of Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Making Stars Physical: The Astronomy of Sir John Herschel

Barbara J. Becker Why did I love this book?

Denizens of the twenty-first century need to hop on board a time machine if they want to really see and comprehend the structure and workings of the world through nineteenth-century eyes. Making Stars Physical is just the ticket!  It pulls the modern reader back into an era when the science of astronomy was still mainly focused on tracking the movement of Earth's solar system companions against the array of carefully plotted background stars. It also reveals that, despite a public façade of stability and uniformity of purpose, astronomy's disciplinary boundaries were beginning to blur.

Author Stephen Case presents an engaging examination of the prehistory of astrophysics and the pivotal role played in it by polymath John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), whose views reflected the complexity, strengths, and limitations of the state of contemporary astronomical knowledge. Although, like many of his contemporaries, he doubted that the chemists' trusted spectroscope would be of much use to astronomers, he remained optimistic that methodical scientific investigation would ultimately resolve the mystery of the true nature of celestial bodies.  By encouraging amateurs and professionals alike to study stars' physical characteristics and apply known terrestrial laws of nature to the celestial realm, Herschel paved the way for the emergence of the new astronomy of astrophysics.

By Stephen Case,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making Stars Physical as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Making Stars Physical offers the first extensive look at the astronomical career of John Herschel, son of William Herschel and one of the leading scientific figures in Britain throughout much of the nineteenth century. Herschel's astronomical career is usually relegated to a continuation of his father, William's, sweeps for nebulae. However, as Stephen Case argues, John Herschel was pivotal in establishing the sidereal revolution his father had begun: a shift of attention from the planetary system to the study of nebulous regions in the heavens and speculations on the nature of the Milky Way and the sun's position within it.…

Book cover of Mapping the Spectrum: Techniques of Visual Representation in Research and Teaching

Barbara J. Becker Why did I love this book?

The proverbial scientist at work conjures the image of a solitary investigator bent over a workbench cluttered with arcane instruments nestled among reams of scribbled notes just waiting to be transformed into creative answers to pressing questions about the natural world. The image's simplicity belies the complexity of the process it purports to represent. Adding descriptions of the what, how, and why of scientific inquiry, observation, and analysis still misses a crucial element that makes the improvement, dissemination, and acceptance of new knowledge possible, namely the active behind-the-scenes collaboration between scientists and the illustrators, photographers, printers, and other artisans who use visual representation to shape and successfully communicate that knowledge. 

Mapping the Spectrum is not just an exhaustive and illuminating history of spectrum analysis.  In it, author Klaus Hentschel brilliantly exposes the essential role of visual culture in bringing this all-important tool of modern science to useful life.  He has enriched his compelling text with an abundant array of illustrations, including four-color plates.

By Klaus Hentschel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mapping the Spectrum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever since the boom of spectrum analysis in the 1860s, spectroscopy has become one of the most fruitful research technologies in analytic chemistry, physics, astronomy, and other sciences. This book is the first in-depth study of the ways in which various types of spectra, especially the sun's Fraunhofer lines, have been recorded, displayed, and interpreted. The book assesses the virtues and pitfalls of various types of depictions, including hand sketches, woodcuts,
engravings, lithographs and, from the late 1870s onwards, photomechanical reproductions. The material of a 19th-century engraver or lithographer, the daily research practice of a spectroscopist in the laboratory, or…

Book cover of Minding the Heavens: The Story of Our Discovery of the Milky Way

Barbara J. Becker Why did I love this book?

Young people today casually speak of "galaxies far, far away".  They seem to have an intuitive, even if fanciful, understanding that, like science fiction aliens, they and their fellow humans also reside in a galaxy of their own. A mere century ago, such a belief was a matter of highly debatable conjecture. How did earthbound observers learn that the Sun is just one of the hundreds of billions of stars bound gravitationally in a vast spiral-shaped galaxy? 

As Minding the Heavens ably demonstrates, the answer to that question is a long and fascinating story, one that author Leila Belkora vividly recounts using chapter-length biographies of seven astronomers from the 18th to the 20th centuries.  With help from their assistants and family as well as communication with contemporaries, these curiosity-driven individuals endeavored to determine the form and structure of the celestial realm and learn the true nature of the mysterious hazy glow commonly known as the Milky Way that, depending on the season and time of night, can be seen arching across the starry sky.  Belkora deftly uses examples drawn from the successes and failures of these puzzle-solvers of the past to inspire modern readers to continue the quest for answers to the tantalizing unsolved cosmological riddles of today.

By Leila Belkora,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Minding the Heavens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Praise for the first edition:

"A terrific blend of the science and the history."

Martha Haynes, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University, New York, USA

"The book is a treat... Highly recommended for public and academic libraries."

Peter Hepburn, now Head Librarian, College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, California, USA

Today, we recognize that we live on a planet circling the sun, that our sun is just one of billions of stars in the galaxy we call the Milky Way, and that our galaxy is but one of billions born out of the Big Bang. Yet, as recently as…

Book cover of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Barbara J. Becker Why did I love this book?

Authors who focus on the lives, careers, and achievements of the so-called "great men of science" have too often omitted mention of the invisible essential workers whose indispensable contributions made those achievements possible. These assistants -- family members, friends, neighbors, young recruits -- were pressed into work for, at best, meager compensation and little to no recognition for their efforts.  Fortunately, more authors, like Dava Sobel, who write on the history of science are going beyond the public record, delving into private correspondence, diaries, and other lesser-known accounts to uncover and make known the important work of assistants' behind-the-scenes contributions. 

The title of Sobel's book, The Glass Universe, refers to the hundreds of thousands of images of stellar spectra captured on glass photographic plates at the Harvard College Observatory under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering.  While Sobel gives Pickering his due, she devotes her riveting narrative to bringing to light the lives and accomplishments of the corps of women who worked tirelessly and diligently for years to analyze and interpret the spectra on those plates.  Their painstaking efforts supplied the discipline-changing foundation for the theory and practice of modern astronomy.

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Glass Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

"A joy to read." -The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the…

Book cover of The Expanding Universe: Astronomy's 'Great Debate', 1900-1931

Barbara J. Becker Why did I love this book?

Thanks to spectrum analysis, the development of improved photographic capabilities, and the construction of powerful new mountaintop telescopes, early 20th century astronomers were able to ask and seek answers to an entirely new range of intriguing questions about the nature and structure of the celestial realm. But the inability to resolve all nebulae into stars left them with a nagging mystery to untangle:  are these luminous clouds relatively nearby embryonic solar systems, or extremely distant aggregates of countless stars? 

In The Expanding Universe, author Robert Smith ably transforms archival material into a lively narrative of the dramatic twists and turns -- the disappointing failures, dead-ends, careless errors, contentious controversies, welcome surprises, and successes -- of the decades-long international effort to find answers to this perplexing quandary.

By Robert W. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Expanding Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the years between 1900 and 1931 astronomers witnessed three startling changes in their view of the Universe. First, the accepted value of the size of the star system, which increased by a factor of ten; secondly, evidence forced the acceptance of the fact that there are other star systems beyond our own Galaxy; and lastly, that observation of these external galaxies disclosed the expansion of the Universe. This book, originally published in 1982, describes and explains in detail these shifts in opinion, considering them in the light of theories and ideas on the nature of the Universe, were current…

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Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

Book cover of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

Manni Coe Author Of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a gay man born into an evangelical Christian family, my coming out story was wrought with pain, trauma, and separation from family and loved ones. In the same year I lost my best friend in an accident. My world tumbled and I had to crawl back to a place of reckoning. Walking became my path to healing. So when my brother Reuben, who has Down's syndrome sent me a message from the isolation of a care home in the pandemic, I knew he was in trouble. Those five words - ´brother. do. you. love. me.´changed our lives. I thought I might know a way to save him.

Manni's book list on memoirs that capture the struggle of everyday life

What is my book about?

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me. is a true story of brotherly love overcoming all. Reuben, who has Down's syndrome, was trapped in a care home during the pandemic, spiralling deeper into a non-verbal depression. From isolation and in desperation, he sent his older brother Manni a text, "brother. do. you. love. me."

This cry for help, this SOS in the sand unleashed a brotherly love that had Manni travelling back to the UK mid-pandemic to rescue his brother from the care home, and together they sheltered from the world in a cottage in deepest, darkest Dorset. There began a journey of recovery and rediscovery. Little by little, the brothers had to piece back together Reuben's world, help him to find his voice and find ways for him to trust the world again. This is a book about care, about Down's syndrome, about love. It is a story of resilience and patience in a world that Reuben thought had abandoned him.

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

What is this book about?

The story of two brothers, one with Down syndrome, and their extraordinary journey of resilience and repair.

"Profoundly moving and hugely uplifting."—Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Reuben, aged 38, was living in a home for adults with learning disabilities. He hadn’t established an independent life in the care system and was still struggling to accept that he had Down syndrome. Depressed and in a fog of antidepressants, he hadn’t spoken for over a year. The only way he expressed himself was by writing poems or drawing felt-tip scenes from his favorite musicals…

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