The best books about astronomers

14 authors have picked their favorite books about astronomers and why they recommend each book.

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Contact

By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Contact

Carl Sagan's PBS series Cosmos influenced my decision to pursue a career in astronomy, but I have always been a science fiction fan. When Sagan released a science fiction novel, I knew I needed it. He doesn't disappoint. He roots his story in the real Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and imagines what could happen if we actually did contact life among the stars and they gave us a way to travel to them. I also love that much of the story is set at the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, where I worked during my senior year of college. His protagonist Ellie Arroway reminds me of many women I've worked with in the field. 


Who am I?

After watching the moon landings as a child, I've long wondered when humans would visit a world beyond the moon and what that would be like. This led me to explore novels that imagine space travel. What's more, I pursued a career in astronomy so I could do my part to explore worlds beyond the Earth. Exploring the solar system and worlds beyond our solar system raises many questions. Some are practical, like how do we get there? Some involve what we'll learn and how the experience of visiting these worlds will change us. The books I recommend explore these themes from several different perspectives.


I wrote...

The Solar Sea

By David Lee Summers,

Book cover of The Solar Sea

What is my book about?

In the year 2074, Jonathan Jefferson became the last human to set foot on the planet Mars. Nineteen years later, Natalie Freeman violated presidential orders and brokered peace in the Middle East. The year is now 2098. Thomas Quinn discovers particles near Saturn that could provide unlimited energy to Earth. The Quinn Corporation builds a solar sail spacecraft commanded by Jefferson and Freeman to investigate. Along the way, they stop at Mars and Jupiter and find wonders and dangers beyond their imagination. Step aboard the Solar Sail Aristarchus and sail the solar sea.

The Astronomer & the Witch

By Ulinka Rublack,

Book cover of The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for His Mother

The fascinating and moving story of the famous astronomer’s reluctant defense of his obstreperous mother, where not just his reputation but her life are at stake. We get an in-depth sense of how the combination of local animosities and popular superstitions gradually gather momentum over time until some tipping point brings them into the legal arena. I especially liked Rublack’s sympathetic portrayal of a famous scholar struggling with his own origins and sense of familial duty. A personal, family story, as early modern witchcraft cases often were. 


Who am I?

I am the Centennial Professor of history at Vanderbilt University. I have been reading and teaching about witchcraft and the occult for over thirty years. This is a topic that never fails to engage people of all backgrounds and has generated a plethora of books, some good, many not. I look for authors who understand the passions, psychology, and experiences of both accusers and supposed witches, while also exploring what it is about certain societies that leads to such claims being taken seriously, often with fatal results. The books I picked vividly convey the reality of the witch craze, while also asking some probing questions about persecutions in general.  


I wrote...

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

By Joel F. Harrington,

Book cover of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

What is my book about?

In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington vividly re-creates a life filled with stark contrasts, from the young apprentice's rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantz's juggling of familial duties with his work in the torture chamber and at the scaffold. With him we encounter brutal highwaymen, charming swindlers, and tragic unwed mothers accused of infanticide, as well as patrician senators, godly chaplains, and corrupt prison guards. Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt's journal, uncovering a touching tale of inherited shame and attempted redemption for the social pariah and his children. The Faithful Executioner offers not just the compelling firsthand perspective of a professional torturer and killer, but the testimony of one man's lifelong struggle to reconcile his bloody craft with his deep religious faith.

Edwin Hubble

By Gale E. Christianson,

Book cover of Edwin Hubble

Comprehensive biography of the astronomer who confirmed that the universe is made of galaxies, and the galaxies are all moving away from one another. Based upon extensive archival research including diaries from the Hubble family.

Who am I?

I was trained in astronomy and astrophysics, was a staff observer at the Lick and Yerkes Observatories, and always have had a passion for researching and writing the history of modern astrophysics and space astronomy. I hold a PhD in the history of astronomy from the University of Leicester in England, am now a retired museum curator having been a planetarium lecturer, college professor, research associate for the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, and guitar teacher in the early 1960s.


I wrote...

The Hubble Cosmos: 25 Years of New Vistas in Space

By David H. DeVorkin, Robert W. Smith,

Book cover of The Hubble Cosmos: 25 Years of New Vistas in Space

What is my book about?

Lavishly illustrated popular exposition of the Hubble Space Telescope, how and why it was created, who built it and fought for it, who used it, and how it has changed our view of the universe.

Making Stars Physical

By Stephen Case,

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

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…


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.

Minding the Heavens

By Leila Belkora,

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

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…


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.

Galileo's Daughter

By Dava Sobel,

Book cover of Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

We all know the cartoon version of the story of Galileo. He used one of the first telescopes to show that the earth was not the center of the universe and the Catholic Church condemned him for it. But the real story is much more intricate and much more interesting. Dava Sobel is a master storyteller who not only explains the science, but gives us a fully human Galileo living a very complicated life.


Who am I?

As a professor, I see students fascinated by science, but petrified to take a science class. This is in part because we have dehumanized science, removed the story, edited out the human, deleted the parts that allow people to connect with it. Science does not get delivered by gods, but is created by people: smart, quirky, sometimes immoral people. As a writer, my hope is to be able to reinsert life into readers’ understanding of our greatest advances. As a reader myself, I am deeply appreciative when other authors do it too.


I wrote...

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

By Steven Gimbel,

Book cover of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

What is my book about?

The Nazis tried to denigrate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science,” as opposed to the superior “Aryan science.” We rightly reject this as ideological nonsense, but it raises the interesting question of the cultural influences on Einstein’s thought. Plenty of other scientists were working around the ideas that Einstein published at the time he was thinking them. Why was it Einstein who put them down in print? When we learn science in school, it is taught as if laws of nature magically appeared in the brains of brilliant scientists fully formed. But scientists are people who lived at places at times and they way they thought was influenced by the world they lived in. We cannot separate science from history, politics, or religion. 

Vera Rubin

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Book cover of Vera Rubin: A Life

The engagingly told story of a modern hero who not only illuminated some of the darkest secrets of the universe, but who had to do it while fighting sexism all along the way. This is not a romanticized picture of a great scientist, but an inspiring and enraging telling of a real person living a recognizable life whose genius contributed to humanity and her unwavering moral compass and determination did the same for the culture.


Who am I?

As a professor, I see students fascinated by science, but petrified to take a science class. This is in part because we have dehumanized science, removed the story, edited out the human, deleted the parts that allow people to connect with it. Science does not get delivered by gods, but is created by people: smart, quirky, sometimes immoral people. As a writer, my hope is to be able to reinsert life into readers’ understanding of our greatest advances. As a reader myself, I am deeply appreciative when other authors do it too.


I wrote...

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

By Steven Gimbel,

Book cover of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

What is my book about?

The Nazis tried to denigrate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science,” as opposed to the superior “Aryan science.” We rightly reject this as ideological nonsense, but it raises the interesting question of the cultural influences on Einstein’s thought. Plenty of other scientists were working around the ideas that Einstein published at the time he was thinking them. Why was it Einstein who put them down in print? When we learn science in school, it is taught as if laws of nature magically appeared in the brains of brilliant scientists fully formed. But scientists are people who lived at places at times and they way they thought was influenced by the world they lived in. We cannot separate science from history, politics, or religion. 

What Miss Mitchell Saw

By Hayley Barrett, Diana Sudyka (illustrator),

Book cover of What Miss Mitchell Saw

This book does a great job of capturing the wonder of the stars. In lyrical language and with absolutely stunning illustrations, What Miss Mitchell Saw will capture the reader’s interest right from the cover. This picture book biography delves into the early days of one of our most brilliant astronomers, Maria Mitchell. Budding scientists and astronomers alike, or anyone who just likes to wonder about the mysteries of space, will love this book.


Who am I?

I am a nurse, mother, and writer, and as such, consider myself a life-learner. When my children come to me with questions, I love being able to grab a beautiful picture book to begin exploring whatever topic is on their minds. I can’t answer all their questions perfectly, but I enjoy searching for the answers with them and hope to impart that love of learning as they grow. Astronomy has always fascinated me, and the books I’ve picked do a fantastic job of discussing everything from gravity to aliens to the first African-American female in space. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have!


I wrote...

Poet, Pilgrim, Rebel: The Story of Anne Bradstreet, America's First Published Poet

By Katie Munday Williams, Tania Rex (illustrator),

Book cover of Poet, Pilgrim, Rebel: The Story of Anne Bradstreet, America's First Published Poet

What is my book about?

The inspiring story of a Puritan woman whose passion for writing poetry broke barriers. Late at night, with her children tucked into bed and her husband away on business, Anne Dudley Bradstreet composed poems by candlelight. She let her thoughts from the day tumble out, memorizing each poem line by line before daring to shape the words onto scraps of scarce parchment. Puritan women in the 1600s weren't allowed to be writers. But when the world learned about Anne's poetry, even she was astonished by what happened next.

This charmingly illustrated picture book tells the inspiring story of how a Puritan woman overcame the obstacles facing women of her era to become one of the most famous poets in history. A gifted writer of deep faith, Anne Bradstreet blazed a trail for the rights of women to study, write, and achieve.

The Last Stargazers

By Emily Levesque,

Book cover of The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers

Author Emily Levesque seeks out powerful telescopes and the people who run them, looking at the evolution of astronomy from a science based on hands-on observing to one more centered on remote-controlled instruments. In the book, she questions what astronomy may have lost in its shift toward more distanced and abstracted technology—and what sorts of creativity and adventure it could retain if the study of the stars were a little more like it was in centuries past. I enjoyed the hard, but narrative and engaging, look at what professional astronomers gain and lose from the way they look at the stars (and everything else in the sky).


Who am I?

I grew up intending to become an astronaut. The cosmos always felt within reach of my backyard, from where I could watch the Space Shuttle launch. As I grew up, I began to realize that the space our rockets reached was exceedingly close compared to the rest of the universe. And I became obsessed with what else was out there. I went on to study radio astronomy, fascinated by the parts of the cosmos that our senses can’t detect. After that, I became a science journalist, writing about how space influences Earth and vice versa.


I wrote...

Astronomical Mindfulness: Your Cosmic Guide to Reconnecting with the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets

By Christopher G. de Pree, Sarah Scoles,

Book cover of Astronomical Mindfulness: Your Cosmic Guide to Reconnecting with the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets

What is my book about?

Back when humans lived in communal caves and tribal encampments, we told stories about the stars. When we started sailing, we used these same pinpricks of light to estimate our own location. When we began planting, we relied on the constellations and the Sun to plant and sustain crops. crops. Yet today, most modern humans have lost this deep connection to the cosmos that was once central to our daily lives. To help us reestablish our vital connection to the heavens, Astronomical Mindfulness guides readers in using the power of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to deepen knowledge of the solar system and foster a renewed sense of presence in the universe. Filled with engaging exercises, the shows the fundamental ways our planet moves through the solar system and how these motions determine our perception of time and place.

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos

By Dennis Overbye,

Book cover of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe

If you’ve ever wondered how the universe could have originated from a speck and expanded in a big bang, or why scientists came to believe such a thing, this book explains it all in an accessible, gripping story. Overbye, who is a science writer for the New York Times, paints a sweeping history of big bang cosmology through the colorful characters who put it together in the second half of the 20th century. The story revolves around astronomer Allan Sandage, who was a student of the famed Edwin Hubble. After Hubble discovered that the stars were arranged in galaxies that were speeding away from each other, he died, leaving Sandage to finish his quest to understand the implications of this expansion, measure the age of the universe, and determine whether the cosmos is eternally spreading out into an ever more sparse and lonely place.  


Who am I?

I’m a science journalist, podcaster and opinion columnist for the Bloomberg News Service. I’ve written for the New York Times, Science, Sky and Telescope, Psychology Today, New Scientist and other publications. I studied geophysics at Caltech, where I learned about climate change and the long history of our planet. I wrote about astrophysics and particle physics for Science Magazine before taking a job as a general science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There, I asked for the chance to write a weekly science column.  The editors said they wanted a sex column. I made the best of it, creating a column about sex in the natural world. 


I wrote...

The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man

By Faye Flam,

Book cover of The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man

What is my book about?

What really separates males from females in nature? What tendencies or traits would distinguish male willow trees, killer whales, bees, goldfish, mice, and men? The answer is simple – males have the smaller sex cell. Sperm are by definition smaller than eggs. The first life forms didn’t have sex or sexes. In my research, I went in search of the life forms that invented sexes(probably a form of algae) and explored the wide-ranging implications for life on earth. Along the way, readers learn why peacocks are polygamous and penguins are monogamous, why the male stick insect latches on to his mate for days on end, why some animals show homosexual behavior, why some clownfish change sexes, and why the male honeybee will try to mate with a queen even though his conquest causes him to die. 

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