Author Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest
Publisher Octobus Books
ISBN 9781844037117
RRP £8.99
The Story of Astronomy

This is one of those wonderfully slender volumes that deftly treats a vast subject in an entertaining but never gimmicky manner.

Specifically, the book succeeds not because it lives up to the exact claim of its sub-title ‘How the Universe Revealed its Secrets,’ but because it is also a cultural history of the many ways that humanity has projected its self-identity onto the cosmos. An alternative sub-title might have been ‘How Humanity Revealed Itself by Projecting onto an Imagined Cosmos.’

Slap parentheses around classical Greece and pre-modern Arabia, and there isn’t much ‘science’ in our sense of it, until Galileo and Newton, and then specifically the 1800s until the present, the vast bulk of scientific discovery occurring since Russia lobbed a satellite into orbit to the anger of the Americans in 1957.

Perhaps predictably, the narrative ends poetically where it begins, with Earth “merely an average planet, circling a middle-aged star in an unremarkable galaxy,” balanced by a continued amazement that we, as a human life form, are so equipped as to be able to “question what it all means.”

One of the authors, Heather Couper, after studying astrophysics at Oxford, ran the Greenwich Planetarium and became the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, a chair that involves offering lectures to the public. Co-author Nigel Henbest hails from Cambridge where he researched radio astronomy. Together, they hatched a TV production company called Pioneer Productions. This is all relevant because very few academics are equipped to write this sort of book, and would fear that by being ‘popular’ (dread word!) it might incur the disdain of highbrow peers.