The best books on the history of astrophysics

Barbara J. Becker Author Of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy
By Barbara J. Becker

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Based on new evidence on Huggins's life and career gleaned from his unpublished notebooks and correspondence, Unravelling Starlight provides a fresh look at his pioneering contributions to the development of astrophysics and sheds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.

The books I picked & why

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Making Stars Physical: The Astronomy of Sir John Herschel

By Stephen Case,

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

Why 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.


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

By Klaus Hentschel,

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

Why 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.


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

By Leila Belkora,

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

Why 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.


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

By Dava Sobel,

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

Why 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.


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

By Robert W. Smith,

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

Why 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.


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