Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stargazers by Allan Chapman

The subtitle of Stargazers is Galileo, Copernicus, the Telescope and the Church, but that is a bit deceptive, since the book is really a history of astronomy itself.  The author spends the most time, however, discussing the "Astronomical Renaissance" from the year 1500 to 1700.  I requested a review-copy because of the large section of the book us devoted to Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian astronomer. 

The section on Galileo begins about 29% into the book and goes to about 43% of the book.  The whole book covers:
  • Aristotle's universe
  • Copernicus's revolution
  • Tycho Brahe's earth-sun-centric universe
  • Kepler's laws of motion
  • Galileo Galilei's telescope and visual proof
  • The Jesuits missionaries' telescope based astronomy around the world
  • Protestants and science
  • Francis Bacon and natural philosophy
  • The Royal Society and the International Fellowship of Science
  • The heavenly clockwork and the power of the scientific method
There are Notes, Further Reading suggestions, a full Index and illustrations throughout the text.

The spread of the study of astronomy was thanks to the Jesuit schools set up to educate young men in thinking critically, and knowing how to argue and defend a proposition.  They were educated in the seven liberal arts, one of which was astronomy. 

But those teachers would have had nothing to teach without the ancient texts that were preserved by religious monastic societies throughout the middle ages:  the ancient scientists provided many instruments, astronomical tables, calculations and observations.

Galileo's drawings of the phases of the moon

And the ancient texts would not have been available to the teachers and students without the printing press, which from 1500 onward provided affordable texts throughout Europe of books that previously were the domain of mainly churches and princes.

It is the printing of the new ideas of the learned that made the astronomical renaissance possible.  Ideas built upon ideas, observations stimulated more theories, which pushed thinkers to desire proof, which lead to more instruments...

Galileo comes alive through the details provided by the author about Galileo's life, upbringing, his world and his public record of arrogance and cruelty.  The Italian was:
...unmystical, hard-headed, argumentative, and possessed of a powerful personality that did not take easily to being contradicted.
There has been much myth-building surrounding Galileo, many stories that may not be true, lots of anecdotes to show the man's greatness, but few reveal his nastiness. 

Frontispiece of Opere Di Galileo Galilei, Published in Bologna in 1656

Traveling around Venice, Padua and other important Italian city-states, the centers of learning during the Renaissance, the author looks at the advancement of astronomical mathematics, engineering, and astronomical tools that Galileo had a hand in.

Galileo was a mathematician and theoretician who used his applied mathematics and engineering skills to create a refracting telescope with special lenses that allowed him to observe the objects in the sky better than anyone before him, and he wrote about his observations of Jupiter, the moon, Saturn's rings, Venus's transit of the sun, and the milky way's stars.

One of the myth-making stories of Galileo experimenting with gravity from the top of the leaning Bell Tower of Pisa

You have to be something of an astronomy fanatic, or a beginning student of astronomy, to read this book.  It is rich with detail, but since it covers such a long period of time some sections are rather cursory.  The curious reader will want to check out the Further Reading suggestions to flesh out the story of astronomy.  But this is an excellent introductory text!

From the book's description:
Stargazers presents a comprehensive history of how leading astronomers, such as Galileo and Copernicus, mapped the stars from 1500AD to around 1700AD.  Building on the work of the Greek and Arabian astrologers before him, church lawyer Nicholas Copernicus proposed the idea of a sun-centred universe.  It was later popularized by Galileo – a brilliant debater whose abrasive style won him many enemies – who presented new evidence, which suggested that the earth moved.  

This thorough examination of the work of both men explores both their achievements and influences. It then traces the impact of their ideas on those who followed them, including Sir Francis Bacon, Dr John Wilkins, Dr Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton and Reverend Dr James Bradley.  

Chapman investigates the Church’s role and its intriguing relationship with the astronomers of the day, many of whom were churchgoers.  He rebuts the popular view that the Church was opposed to the study of astronomy.  In reality, it led the search to discover more.  In 1728, Copernicus’s theory of the moving earth was finally proven by the young Reverend Dr James Bradley.

Frontispiece of Galileo's 'De Systemate Mundi' Depicting Aristotle, Ptolomy, Copernicus, 1635

Here are direct links to Stargazers at

This is a sanitized version of Galileo's life and work:

Visit the author's page at Gresham College.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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