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

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Review of Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy:  A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore by Neil English (Springer Nature, ISBN: 978-331997706)

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy:  A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore is a good-read for “we stargazers” and telescopists of a mellowed age.  As winter approaches, I can imagine myself re-reading the hard cover version of this book, sitting in my soft recliner, snuggled into a warm throw with my dog on my lap and a steaming cup of hot chocolate or tea on the lamp stand alongside, as the snow drifts down or as the bright stars of the winter constellatory asterism appear outside my window.  Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy by Neil English is right up-there with the likes of Ed Ting’s Scope Reviews, articles and threads in Cloudy Nights, Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, Ronald Florence’s The Perfect Machine.

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy is a 650-page tour-de-force.  It tells of those persons who, over a four-hundred-year period beginning in the late A.D. 1500s, developed and imagined and designed and built and used refractors and reflectors to observe and unveil, step by step, the mysteries of the universe.  Chronicling introduces us to the historic instruments of that era; the Dorpat refractor, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the Meudon Refractor, the Naval Observatory and Mount Wilson, the reflectors of Dobson, and so many more besides.  The book displays the major astronomical and astrophysical accomplishments realized by these profound instruments and dedicated efforts of observing:  the use of parallax, the application of spectral analysis, cepheid variables as a standard yard stick, red shift unveiling to the human mind the dazzling size of the cosmos, et alia.

Neil holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a B.S.C.-Honours in physics and astronomy.  In addition to being a scientist, Neil is a skilled writer.  His writing style reveals a unique lyrical prose.  Well-turned phrases and bon mots and aphorisms, current and ancestral, are found on nearly every page.  Chapters often begin with a quote which immediately creates a sense of the milieu within which the subject of that chapter’s essay was historically ensconced.  Such is the case of the quote introducing the chapter on Frederich Bessel and his use of parallax:  “Measurement is the heart of science…measurement enables humans to have a sense of perspective….There is a soulful longing…to know through measurement where we “fit” in the scheme of things, wistful desires that have given birth to the global civilization we enjoy today.”  As one reads Chronicling, it is as if one can feel the fog rolling in over Parsons gazing through the eyepiece of his 72 inch speculum reflector, one can hear Caroline Herschel describing the appearance of her comet, one can smell the compounds used by Nasmyth as he ground his mirrors. 

Neil’s sense of good composition draws attention to others who write well.  As one of many examples, he quotes Walter Scott Houston; ”[Planetaries] float on the foam of the Milky Way like the balloons of our childhood dreams.  If you want to stop the world and get off, the lovely planetaries sail by to welcome you home” and "…NGC 5053…a little gem of fairy fire”.  To this end of allowing others their own voice, the author substantially reviews and quotes Telescopic Work for Starlight Evenings by William Frederich Denning, Mars as the Abode of Life by Percival Lowell, The Binary Stars by R. G. Aitken, and again, Deep Sky Wonders by Walter Scott Houston.  Chronicling is a library within a book.

The pages of Chronicling unabashedly state the author’s informed opinions about a number of current issues.  He states his distaste for the marketing of apochromatic refractors to an amateur audience.  He quotes Dr. Mike Palermiti who states that ED and apochromat telescopes, “represent[s] gross "over kill" for the marketplace that they are introduced into”.  Similarly, Neil brings his extensive background in biochemistry to bear in his denunciations of darwinistic evolution and doctrines of social eugenics originating from the same.  As to the idea of the existence of extra-terrestrial life, Neil states; “…life as we know it could be far rarer than any previously envisaged, or even unique.”  I and others can disagree with the author’s assertions, but we should not let these differences stand in the way of obtaining and reading this wonderful tome.

Chronicling is like walking through an old-world city bazaar and discovering some new and unexpected charm at each turn.  This book is full of illustrations and pictures which are well matched to the content of the page on which or near which they appear.  One finds pages presenting the mathematics of binary star calculations.  Or one might be introduced to the wonder of fashioning telescope mirrors.  As a TN myself,  I appreciate the many references Neil makes in his book to those who also ground glass in favor of purchasing class-glass; whether for reasons aesthetic or financial.  He quotes James Nasmyth (A.D. 1807 to 1890) “I know of no mechanical pursuit in connection with science that offers such an opportunity for practicing the technical arts as that of constructing, from first to last, a complete…reflecting telescope…Buy nothing but raw material, and work your way to possession of a telescope by means of your own individual labor and skill…you will find a glorious reward in the enchanted enjoyment of a night with the heavens.” 

Related to telescope making, I regret the book did not include a presentation of the work of R.W. Porter, Albert Ingalls, the Springfield Telescope Makers of Vermont, and the history of Stellafane at Breezy Hill.  However, it is hard to quibble over a morsel when presented with the buffet banquet found in this book.  As encyclopedic as Chronicling is, it could not cover everything. 

Being of the aforementioned mellowed age, I appreciate Chronicling’s references to the stargazers and telescopists who gave up observing due to decreased optical acuity as they aged.  But even more, I appreciated Neil sharing with us the statement of Walter Houston, “growing old need not inevitably lead to reduced observing activity.”  I also appreciated the assessment given by this book of the impact of conspicuous over-consumption upon the future of amateur astronomy.  A disturbing similarity is presented between “[T]he “forum culture” of the post-modern amateur…blinded by…materialism” and the social blindness of the wealthy amateur-gentlemen of the Victorian era for whom “the sheer gulf between haves and have-nots of the day” and ”the squalor of the slum w[ere] a distant and unthinkable possibility”.   The book creates a powerful montage of Percival Lowell’s glowing cartesian sentiment “…the time is coming when the earth will bear his [man’s] imprint and his alone” and Leslie Peltier’s warning, “…children will never know the blessed dark of night.”  Many of us would agree with Neil when he writes; “things have deteriorated…light pollution“.   Nevertheless, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy leaves the reader with a hopeful optimism.  “The telescope is a wondrous invention, and the heavens contain all manner of marvels that can astound the imaginative mind, no matter what the smog density might be”, writes Walter Scott Houston.  To this Neil adds, “Times have…changed…for the better.”  “We live at the best possible time and in the best possible place in the entire cosmos.”

  • Ken Sturrock, ziridava, BoldAxis1967 and 5 others like this


I just finished reading every chapter, all 660 pp....Golden Age is a true tour de force skillfully researched and executed - Thank You, Neil! I will continue to randomly re-read chapters to absorb more. The book-build is wonderful, profusely illustrated with superb quality figures and images.


Regarding the author's personal perspective and analysis: Readers should appreciate that the composition is, above all else... biographical! Therefore apropos that Neil's own personality shines through. If that piques some snowflakes' prejudices --- time to expand and celebrate the full rainbow of perspectives!    Tom

Yeah but Tom, if this is accurate then it illustrates a prejudice on Neil's part:


I am tired of the constant attacks not only on refractors but those amateurs who today would choose a smaller refractor over a larger aperture reflector and he gets downright personal in his attacks.


I know from personal interactions that this is in fact his perspective and it is disappointing that he would get personal in a book instead of just offering his arguments.  It is one thing to believe that an 8" (for example) reflector is better than a 4" APO.  It is another thing to get personal about the people that choose the 4" APO.   I'm not offended by his opinion.  He can think what he wants.   But I do find it annoying that he chooses to make such unnecessary personal attacks about my choice of telescopes - choices that fit my needs.  That does not make one a "snowflake".  I know what "snowflakes" are.  Many of the students I teach are snowflakes and I can't express my opinions on certain topics for fear of being hauled in and written up for offending the snowflakes.  Snowflakes can't handle the expression of an alternative opinion - even if politely expressed and logically argued.   Nobody posting on this thread is being a snowflake.   The objection is to rude characterization of the people that have a different opinion than Neil's.

Shorty Barlow
Jun 14 2019 07:24 PM

It's 150 quid though. I could always wait for the movie I suppose. I won't sleep now until I buy it.

Shorty Barlow
Jun 14 2019 07:34 PM

Probably wait for the movie ...

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