© Norman Sperling, March 28, 2011
Last weekend's Steampunk convention really dazzled in style.
"Plain" and "Steampunk" don't intersect. Look at the details on the finest Queen Anne Victorian houses at images.google.com or flickr.com. I saw goggles with wonderful elaborate brasswork, the 2 sides assertively different. Steampunkers make fantastic corsetry, hats, featherware, gearworks, brassworks, glassworks ... shiny and colorful and intricate and brash. It was such a feast for the eyes that I wandered the dealers and halls agog.
Practically all of it came from handcrafters. A few smallish companies create T-shirts, and publish the fiction that drives the genre. No big corporations, no mass production.
Practically the only person who arrived there not wearing showy goggles (Steampunk's universal icon) was me. I'd intended to buy some anyway, but that made it imperative. I bought. Now they ride the brim of my pith helmet. Not that it matters in steampunkdom, but it's a real pith helmet, that is built out of pith (a natural styrofoam-like substance from certain reeds). I bought it in Nairobi in 1980 while chasing a solar eclipse.
Genuine Victorian stuff does not attract the Steampunkers. A dealer with antiquarian microscopes, books, rulers, and slide rules had very few customers. The dealers who sold a lot have fantastically elaborated, gaudy goods. Their late-1800s aesthetic is wildly embroidered; the real thing itself is way too sedate.
Enormous elaboration continued into the 1900s (think Duesenbergs in the 1920s and '30s). Then the tides of fashion flipped toward sleek, hiding detailed inner workings under shells of each year's favorite shapes.
Telescopes, microscopes, cars, appliances, and a host of other complex devices still hide all their intricacies. While electronic circuit boards remain ugly and static, pipes, chains, gears, belts, and other moving stuff can be made attractive and interesting. It's time to bring those out of hiding, shine them up, and celebrate the harmony of their workings. Dyson has led vacuum cleaners this way, and Harley-Davidson never left, so many more should follow.
© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2011
While the Skeptics' movement, as official organizations of people, only dates from the 1970s, there have been skeptics of pseudoscience for hundreds of years. One of the most interesting was a prickly Victorian named Augustus De Morgan.
De Morgan responded tartly in the Athenaeum magazine to assorted balderdash he read in a wide variety of books, and to letters which people sent him. His writings for the Athenaeum were rather like those of some bloggers today. He had a short fuse. Politeness was not a priority.
After he died, his widow published De Morgan's ripostes as one of the first Skeptics' books, A Budget of Paradoxes. I treasure my copy of the second edition, published in 2 volumes in 1915.
I got them from the estate of Joe Ashbrook, editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Joe's signature inside the front cover says he bought it on June 24, 1935, when the book was 20 years old, and Joe was 17. Over the rest of his career he wrote a great many interesting notes in it. Joe especially used the book's many short biographies; back then, we didn't have the research resources we have now.
But the Budget only publishes De Morgan's retorts. The first half of each dialog isn't there, and can only partly be inferred from what is. Back when De Morgan wrote, and when the Budget was published, there was a perfect reason for that: the copyrights to the other side of the dialog didn't belong to De Morgan, and the writers were usually hostile to him.
Now those copyrights have long expired. And now a huge amount of Victorian text is on-line and otherwise more accessible.
So now that it is possible, somebody should put together the complete version: the claims as well as the disproofs, the bunk as well as the debunk.
It could be published in electronic formats. It could also be printed-on-demand so no publisher has to bet how many others will want to buy a copy, after I buy the first one.
What similar worthy projects, never done before, are now doable?
© Norman Sperling, February 13, 2011
A big antiquarian book fair was just held in San Francisco. It seems that books are not going out of style, and old books keep climbing in value.
You probably know famous old Science books from recent paperback nth-editions. You know how important the authors, and the books, were. You may even have read the books.
That would tell you what an author said ... but not with the same impression that the original book gave to its original readers. The real first edition is different.
It's clothbound, not paperback. It's a quality production job that feels substantial. The first edition's cover and frontispiece don't depict the author full of age and honor and glory, because he wasn't yet. When the first edition got to the readers, the author was rather young, no hero, not particularly well known, and hadn't been glorified at all. And the book therefore looks like it: the author's name is not as big and bold as the title. The subtitle plays an important persuasive role.
When important Science books get published, the authors are full of hope, but the publishers, who have actual money at risk, are full of fear. So most first editions have short press runs to reduce the risk of warehousing unsold leftovers. Therefore, with such a tiny supply of first editions, if a book becomes famous, demand can drive prices very high. I've been collecting old Science books for decades but only have a few important first editions.
Compare first editions to later editions. By the time those were printed, the authors and publishers knew that they'd sell a lot, so the press runs were much longer. The persuasive roles of the binding, the title, the subtitle, the author's name, and the frontispiece, all changed from the first edition. Of course the contents are updated and enriched, too.
Demand can continue for decades after the book is out-of-date, and even after the author dies. Degenerate late editions look different, and may persist as volumes in big series of "important books", with muddier and muddier type as the years drag on. Publishers of even-later paperbacks assume you already know the contents are important. The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, illustrates this with a long shelf with over 100 editions of Darwin's On The Origin of Species.
If you're interested in an old Science book mostly for its contents, a reprint or a low-price late edition serves perfectly well. The bulk of my library is that way. But the originals certainly tell a different story!
© Norman Sperling, January 15, 2011
A recommendation by Sky & Telescope magazine last month, following a [.pdf] review last July, rekindled an old glow. The Astroscan telescope - my first big project - was once again named one of the 3 best inexpensive telescopes ... 34 years after it was introduced!
I remember its development clearly.
It was meant to be a superior first telescope, and it is. It has also proven to be a superior second telescope: folks keep it after they graduate to something bigger, and use it for a quick session, and as a convenient portable. Because people keep their Astroscans, remarkably few are offered on the used market.
Robert Edmund was taking over Edmund Scientific Company leadership from his father Norman. Norm has enjoyed retirement in Florida ever since. Robert had studied business management and knew how to run a going concern in changing markets. His telescope line was not doing well. Telescope leadership belonged to Criterion, Unitron, Questar, and Celestron, and Edmund Scientific wanted to earn its way to the top tier. The Astroscan was his opening salvo.
Robert Edmund hired me as a consultant in 1975, when I was 28. I was planetarium director at a private school, an hour's drive north of Edmund's. I was young and unknown and had even rougher edges than now. My ideas were unconventional, and entirely untested in the market. I contributed to a lot of Edmund's smaller astronomy projects, too.
I had observed observers observing in amateur, public, and school settings, and discovered that some of the wisdom of my elders wasn't wisdom. Telescope setup took frustratingly long, mountings were clumsy and shaky with narrow pivot points and long overhangs, eyepieces were tough to squint through, and views were underwhelmingly faint and dull. To improve on those, I preferred quick setup with minimal moving parts, stubby bodies, wide fields of view with wide exit pupils and bright contrast, lightweight and cheap. Those all shouted "Rich-Field".
Dr. Harvey Davis of the Lansing Astronomical Society introduced me to the principles of rich-field telescopes in the late 1960s. He was a friendly young math prof at Michigan State, where I was an undergrad. In the early '70s my friend - everybody's friend - Roger Tuthill made an RFT with an optical window (the success of which spurred us to do the same with the Astroscan). Roger's scope had a conventional cylindrical tube with a simple handle, so the only characteristics in which it was a predecessor of the Astroscan were the window and being an RFT. It didn't sell well at all.
No one in all history had ever gotten Americans to buy a LOW-power telescope, and we knew this was a huge hurdle. I assured Edmund that the telescope would please its users, but I explicitly never promised that anyone would buy it, and I wondered whether the expensive project would ever turn a profit. When Marketing VP Jack Sharff claimed that people would buy it, I thought that was bravado more than business sense. Sharff assured me that making it "popular" was his task, not mine. A good thing, because I understood almost nothing about marketing back then.
I wanted to make the eyepiece's exit-pupil an enormous 6 mm, because that's about the widest a dark-adapted human eye can take in. So, figuring from that, I championed a 4 1/4" f/4 (which the company nudged to f/4.2 for manufacturing convenience). Astroscan's richfield view - 3 degrees wide - means that finding things is easy, and keeping them in view is easy. It also means that hundreds of deep-sky objects are unusually contrasty, making them more obvious to beginners. The tradeoffs are minor: no astrophotography (which we wouldn't wish on novices anyway), planets look too tiny, and only a few double stars would look good. But any novice scope would only show pleasing detail on Jupiter and Saturn, the other planets being too small, featureless, and/or faint. So we swapped decent views of 2 objects (Jupiter and Saturn) to get superior views of hundreds of deep-sky objects.
I expounded on telescope design, exit pupils, and surface brightness in "Of Pupils and Brightness", Griffith Observer, January 1985.
At least as important as the optics, I wrote Astroscan's behavioral specifications. I remember blathering on and on for maybe 2/3 of a page singlespaced that I could have shortened enormously had I known the term "user-friendly". I didn't have the term, but I did have the concept. In beginner telescopes, it meant minimizing adjustments to fiddle with, and shortening the setup time (competitors, then and now, often take 15-20 minutes). Our setup time target was 3 minutes. We got it down to 10 seconds, and NO user's attention-span is too short for that.
While I did the optical and behavioral design, a brilliant young optical engineer, Mike Simmons, created the mechanical design that satisfied our needs. Simmons figured out that pushing the tube into the mounting made sense, and Simmons figured out that the ball-in-socket would work best. He was right. He advocated a very large sphere, with just the focuser-end of the tube sticking out. However, manufacturability, aesthetic appearance, and the awkwardness of a large-diameter sphere pointed the company to a smaller sphere, with more of the cylinder sticking out. This, however, is top-heavy, so to balance it, 2 semicircular slugs of cast iron surround the mirror. The extra weight, and the need for it, offended Simmons, and he left Edmund's soon after. I haven't seen him since the early '80s.
The shell satisfied all my specifications, including being nearly student-proof (it's meant to be checked out by students and carried home on a school bus). An industrial designer did the detail work. It's cast in 2 pieces of ABS plastic (one with the focuser insert, one without) and glued together.
In the fall of 1976, just before the first ads came out, I asked Robert Edmund what amount of sales he'd consider successful. He said 800 units by Christmas. Privately I thought that unlikely. Well, they sold 3,000 Astroscans in those first 3 months, which taught me another business lesson: there are DISeconomies of scale, as well as economies of scale. For example, the company couldn't produce the telescopes fast enough, and had to add shifts. Part of the optical design was meant to use an excellent, but slow-selling eyepiece that Edmund had a thousand of. They ran out, and had to scramble, buying every eyepiece on the world market that could possibly work - some Astroscans were shipped with Clave Plossls worth almost as much as the entire scope! Robert Edmund soon had Penn State's Dr. David Rank design the RKE eyepiece line, stimulated by the need to make a new eyepiece for the Astroscan. I'm happy that the company has sold in the neighborhood of 100,000 of them.
It was Robert Edmund who selected and hired and coordinated all the various people whose work combined to make Astroscan a success. He paid for all the work and assumed all the risk. He paid me quite well. In addition, the Edmund family and company ALWAYS treated me exceptionally well, and very often did me favors far beyond a conventional business relationship. Then and now, I regard my relationship with Edmund as one of the best I have ever had. I consulted for them for 9 years, 1975-84, but I have been a customer of theirs for 50 years, and endorse them as a fine set of people.
Nobody since then has hired me to design a telescope, and such a project is beyond my personal resources. But I still get ideas.
Parts of this post appeared on the Old Scope list in February 2002.
© Norman Sperling, November 21, 2010
In addition to being a world-class celestial mechanic and puzzle solver, he was one of the very nicest people I ever met. Always cheerful, quick to laugh, happy to talk good astronomy with anybody (amateur or professional, young or old), always trying to get the science right. He was everybody else's friend, too. That's a splendid attitude to emulate!
Brian was not an observer. At all. When a bright comet came by, he wouldn't even consider strolling to a telescope in the same complex to see it.
I remember hearing Brian say "Pluto is a comet" several times in the 1970s and '80s. He cited evidence from its orbital characteristics, and never changed his mind: it is too different from anything else called a "planet" to be covered under the same label. To Brian, that made Pluto more interesting rather than less, because he was most interested in asteroids and comets.
Bright and Not So Bright
The Central Bureau is astronomy's alert service: it evaluates and spreads the word about any new discovery that astronomers ought to look at. Once in a while somebody makes a false claim, and they have to avoid diverting astronomers from reality to track it down. Almost all of the discoveries are conventional like comets or novae or supernovae, but they've also announced sudden storms on Saturn and much more.
Brian announced many fast-breaking stories, and inevitably he misjudged a few. While he was tops at predicting positions, he was not very good at predicting comet brightnesses. Neither was everybody else in the 1970s, when so little was yet known about comets' physical structures. Unfortunately, Brian was very slow to realize how poor his brightness formulae were. Fortunately, a lot of amateur and professional astronomers learned skepticism much faster.
His biggest blunder - politely neglected in the flurry of laudatory obituaries and blogs - was predicting that Comet Kohoutek would reach the stupendous brightness of minus-tenth magnitude in January 1974. Later down-gradings of the predicted brightness never caught up with the initial extreme hype. That comet never got bright enough for most urban people to see at all, and the public and media were VERY turned off. That, in turn, cut deeply into the audience for Comet West on March mornings of 1976, when it was truly gaudy but largely ignored.
Decades later, when "potentially hazardous objects" were discovered with orbits that might endanger Earth, Brian again provided the best early calculations to the public. He labeled the uncertainties, but certain irresponsible and incompetent media failed to explain those uncertainties to the public. Other astronomers criticized Brian for stirring up needless alarm, but all Brian was doing was fully informing the public. Re-aim that criticism to the media who don't explain uncertainties. (Now some of them do, but, curiously, only with opinion polls.)
When I worked at Sky & Telescope, I pointed out that not only was Brian an indispensible source, month in, month out, he was also a splendid article topic himself. Other editors agreed, but didn't give me the assignment. Instead, they assigned it to another assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who has been with the New York Times for many years now. His article "Life in the Hot Seat" (S&T, August 1980, pp 92-96) is far better than what I had in mind.
Finding Lost Asteroids
"Brian found Adonis" sounded like gossip, but to astronomers concerned with asteroids and history, it meant that the foremost celestial mechanic had cleaned up yet another decades-old mystery.
In the late 1970s, more than 20 numbered asteroids remained "lost" - about 1% of all numbered asteroids at that time. They had been issued their numbers too hastily, before sufficient data firmly pinned down their orbits. One of Brian's ambitions was to patrol the inflooding observations from bigger and more sensitive telescopes for new sightings of those lost asteroids. That would enable accurate orbits to be computed, securing them for the future.
1862 Apollo was recovered in 1973, and 2101 Adonis in 1977. By 1981, 9 numbered asteroids remained lost, and Brian really wanted them found.
The last 2 were finally mopped up by his son-in-law Gareth Williams: 878 Mildred in 1991, and 719 Albert in 2000. Mildred, by the way, was named for co-discoverer Harlow Shapley's infant daughter when it was discovered in 1916; when her asteroid was recovered she was an editor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.
Though Brian put tremendous energy into tidying up the solar system, he never managed to accomplish the same with his office. It had nearly as many paper piles as mine.
Officially, discoverers have the right to name their asteroids, but some observers never get around to naming all the asteroids they discover. Some identifications emerge from computer analyses instead of observers. Many confusions were cleared up decades later. So, many asteroids that earned numbers have no names.
3 times, I came up with names of living (though old) astronomers who obviously merited asteroids. Not being an observer, I never discovered any myself, so I suggested the names to Brian. He liked them and cleared them through his IAU committee. That committee almost never disagreed - not because they were a rubber stamp, but because Brian made good cases for his proposals. That's how asteroids 2157 Ashbrook and 2637 Bobrovnikoff got their names. He relayed the other to a likely astronomer who had some asteroids "available", which is why Ted Bowell named 2421 Nininger.
A Project for You
Now, way over 100,000 asteroids have earned numbers but haven't been named. Names don't have to be astronomers, or even people. Places and instruments, for example, have lent their names to space rocks. A few have been named for events. What names do you think asteroids should carry? Scientists, historians, and others should propose serious names to prolific discoverers who hold naming rights. Wags who concoct names to suggest in jest should send them to me (email@example.com) for possible use in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.
What a life Brian led! Friends everywhere, widely respected, a very successful career at the top of his profession. We're all going to miss Brian Marsden.
Universal Workshop 2009. Paperback, 6 x 9 inches, 255 pages. ISBN 978-0-934546-55-3. $18.00 http://www.universalworkshop.com/BERE.htm
Reviewed and © by Norm Sperling, November 8, 2010
The constellation of Berenice's Hair is subtle, complex, and beautiful. Generations of astronomy popularizers have retold the 2200-year-old story of Queen Berenice II, her cut hair missing from the temple it was supposed to be in, the authorities placated by being shown the hair in the sky.
This book is the action epic behind that gloss.
Ottewell has a strong voice, sharp wit, and a splendid eye for telling details. He makes the whole story flow remarkably well.
The book, too, is subtle, complex, and beautiful. As a telescope reveals far richer detail about the stars, this book tells far richer detail about the characters, setting, and action. It follows Berenice's royal heritage and parents, 2 royal husbands, court intrigues, and adventures in running Cyrenaica and Egypt.
These tales are far more plausible, and a lot less gory, than classical Greek myths set centuries earlier. This is a modern book for modern readers, including issues our own time cares more about than they did back then. Ottewell tells me that maybe 1/8 of the book comes from historical references, more from his visits to the scenes, and perhaps half is pure fiction.
Exquisitely rare among works of fiction that include astronomy, every single technicality is right - where, when, what can be seen, how things look, and so on. They're integral to the story, not awkwardly pasted on for show, the way non-astronomical writers often do it. We expect this from the author of the popular Astronomical Calendars and Astronomical Companion, and we aren't disappointed.
The illustrations in my copy are placed at the end. Newer versions give the map a full page up front, and place the other pictures where they occur in the tale. More pictures would be better - Ottewell is a fine artist.
The printing and binding are good. Many readers would not even notice that it's a "print-on-demand" volume, their quality has improved so much lately. The text is virtually free of typos.
The scholar in me wants a list of references, and the astronomer in me wants a follow-up for observing the constellation itself. But the latter would be out of place in this book, and easily obtainable on line and in many other books. Perhaps the references could be posted on the book's web page, plus links to observing guides.
I'm moving into an RV and simply can't keep the library I've built over 50 years. (What I do next is described at www.everythingintheuniverse.com/node/76.)
* Thousands of books, mostly <$10.
* These are the best copies I ever got, the ones I kept for myself.
* Many scholarly, lots of popularizations at all levels.
* A few hundred are from the 1800s.
* Over 100 are autographed by their authors.
* Runs of many science periodicals.
* Miscellaneous clippings, brochures, pamphlets ...
Cash preferred. Checks and time-terms accepted from people I know, and people they vouch for personally. PayPal possible, but I'm not set up for credit cards.
11 AM to 4 PM
Saturday, August 11, 2012
413 Poinsettia Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94403
(enter left of the garage, through the courtyard)
near the Hillsdale exit off US-101
Landline: 650-573-7125 (expires about September 22)
and much, much more
Histories of Science, and specific sciences
Heroes of Science
and miscellaneous other interests
The family is also selling kids' bikes, a drum set, 1990 Ford van ($1990), and (closer to September 22) household furniture and stuff ... and then, of course, the house itself. I'll move about September 22, perhaps to Pittsburg, CA, for the fall, then Trek in the RV.
Selected and arranged by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither. Illustrated by Andrew Slocombe. Bristol and Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. xv + 481 pages. Paperback. 0-7503-0635-1. $29.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #3, May 2005, p31.
Only a fraction of the quotations in this entertaining compendium are humorous, but quite a lot of them are witty, and most are wise. You can dip into it anywhere, and never fail to be diverted for however long you want, from seconds to hours.
"A drug is a substance which when injected into a guinea pig produces a scientific paper."
This book is meant not only for amusement but for scholarly reference. Anyone wanting to include a relevant quotation (famous or not) in their own writings can use this volume to find the best quotation. The Gaithers provide an index of subjects, by author. They also provide a separate index of authors, by subject. Whichever you have, and whichever you want, this book helps you get the right thing, and get it right. The compilers have scrupulously traced quotations to their sources, listed in an exhaustive 26-page bibliography. Readers finding gems from a source they never heard of can easily track down the whole book. Equally, it can remind you of an old favorite that's worth looking up again.
Max Planck: "An Experiment is a question which Science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer."
The cartoons by Andrew Slocombe fill out pages in good humor. Most are located near the topic of the cartoon.
Dr. Leonard McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not an escalator."
"I'm a doctor, not a brick layer."
"I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."
"I'm a doctor, not a coal miner."
"I'm a doctor, not an engineer."
This book has extremely few proofing errors. The repetition of quotes from page 249 on page 250 are the worst – and trivial. Typography, printing, and binding, are all excellent, as expected from Institute of Physics Publishing. Other quotation books in the Gaithers' series from the same publisher, in similar bindings, cover most sciences and engineering.
John Allen Paulos: "Consider a precise number that is well known to generations of parents and doctors: the normal human body temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit. Recent investigations involving millions of measurements reveal that this number is wrong; normal human body temperature is actually 98.2° Fahrenheit. The fault, however, lies not with Dr. Wunderlich's original measurements – they were averaged and sensibly rounded to the nearest degree: 37° Celsius. When this temperature was converted to Fahrenheit, however, the rounding was forgotten and 98.6° was taken to be accurate to the nearest tenth of a degree. Had the original interval between 36.5° and 37.5° Celsius been translated, the equivalent Fahrenheit temperatures would have ranged from 97.7° to 99.5°. Apparently, discalulia can even cause fevers."
Even in such a fine resource, I can quibble with a few choices. I wish the dates were included, where known. A lot of medicine has changed from dangerous, a few hundred years ago, to comparatively safe. Quotations of wisdom vary by the realities of the times, and those times are not noted.
A few items are parody songs – meant to be sung to the tune of a well-known song. But that isn't noted till the end of each item, by which time the reader has already read it unmusically. When an item should be sung to a certain tune, tell the reader before starting the lyrics.
"Cold: A curious ailment that only people who are not doctors know how to cure."
The decision to start each section on a new page means that the many sections with one or a few entries leave lots of white space.
This book belongs in many of the same places that JIR belongs: in all medical libraries and staff lounges, and with professionals who could use a diversion. It would make a good gift, and a good award.
Will Rogers: "We were primitive people when I was a kid. There were only a mighty few known diseases. Gunshot wounds, broken legs, toothache, fits, and anything that hurt you from the lower end of your neck down was known as a bellyache."
© 2002 Norman Sperling. Excerpted from What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, 0-913399-04-3.
Whichever textbook you use, you need to understand its context.
Your textbook contains a lot of features to help you learn the concepts and information. Use the captions, the glossary, the learning objectives, the chapter-end questions, and the further readings, every time they'll help you learn, not only when your prof assigns them.
Your textbook is far more up-to-date, much better illustrated, and far more informative than
my introductory-astronomy textbook:
George Abell: Exploration of the Universe, 1964
I used George Abell's Exploration of the Universe in 1965 as a freshman at Michigan State. It was exciting! Not only did it shovel nifty information at me, it conveyed the excitement of research, and the latest perspectives. It even included a few color pictures. (Textbooks didn't get color on every page till the late 1980s. Prices skyrocketed because that's a lot more expensive to prepare and print.)
When I look at Abell's textbook now, however, I cannot help but chuckle. It is so naïve, so ignorant! The pictures look crude, because we have much better technology nowadays. The data are elementary. Spacecraft had only just reached Mars and Venus. Some concepts seem rather strange because we think of those things differently now. There is no mention of background radiation (discovered later that year) or pulsars (they weren't discovered till 1968), and no spacecraft pictures of Jupiter. Computers were huge, clunky, and rare. In so many ways, they didn't understand their clues – they didn't know impact craters pepper the whole solar system, and they didn't know rings circle all the big planets.
But my text was certainly a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. The fact that it gave me no hint of all that was to come reveals a trait common to most textbooks: they are overly-positive. They concentrate so much on what they DO know that they neglect to point out what they DON'T know.
Abell's book was definitely a big improvement over the previous dominant textbook:
Robert H. Baker: Astronomy, 1930
Baker's book went through 10 editions from 1930 clear into the 1970s, a huge span for any textbook. I often checked it out of my city library while in high school, and was surprised it was not the one my prof required in college … surprised, and soon happy. That's because Abell deliberately included astronomy's excitement, and Baker never did. All the data and pictures and understandings of its time are there – the pictures were the very best available – but recited in a dry, declaratory way. That's the kind of person Baker was. Charles J. Peterson relays this story witnessed by a former student of Baker's:
One day a student approached Baker in his office at the University of Illinois to seek help on a concept which he was having difficulty understanding. Baker reached over to his bookshelf for the latest edition of his text. He thumbed to the relevant page and proceeded to read the paragraph pertaining to the student's inquiry.
"I don't understand," responded the student.
Baker read the paragraph a second time.
"That's what I don't understand," replied the student.
Baker then read the paragraph for a third time.
"But I still don't understand," lamented the poor student.
Baker returned the volume to the bookshelf and turned to face the student. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you," he said. "I've given it the best shot I can."
Baker's book is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era, but laughable now. It is so naïve, so ignorant! How primitive they were! They didn't know that galaxies were a big story. Spacecraft were still science fiction. Computers were undreamt of. And so on. Astronomers back then were just as smart and clever as modern ones, but they had a lot less to go on, and it shows.
Nevertheless, Baker's book marked a major improvement over:
Forest Ray Moulton: Astronomy, 1906
Moulton was a leading astronomer of his time, teaming with Thomas C. Chamberlain to propose how the solar system might have formed as a result of another star coming very close to the Sun. Though later data disproved the Chamberlain-Moulton theory, it was advanced for its era.
Moulton's book is now a giggle-factory. The writing is not just passive-dull but downright stodgy. The contents are so naïve, so ignorant! This was before radio astronomy, before anyone knew how fusion works. It's not that much is wrong, but it sure makes you appreciate how much has been learned since then.
Yet it, too, was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era: full of the latest data, and a few recent pictures. And Moulton marched in the forefront of education: his book was also chopped into small sections and marketed for correspondence courses, an early form of "distance learning". Moulton's textbook first appeared in 1906, and remained in print through the edition of 1938.
For all its shortcomings, Moulton's text was a major improvement over the previous dominant text:
Charles A. Young: A Textbook of General Astronomy for Colleges and Scientific Schools, 1888
Young was a veritable textbook factory. He produced several different levels of text, topped by this full-math version for the most technical students, and cut down successively for non-math college students, high-school students, and, in Lessons in Astronomy, for junior-high. I've often thought that should have been titled "Lessens" because of how much Young lessened the book. General Astronomy went through about 7 editions from 1888 to 1916.
This book tells you what astronomy knew at the time. It is so naïve, so ignorant! This was before most astrophotography, before mountaintop observatories, before anyone understood stellar spectra or how celestial objects evolve. Reading and laughing at an edition of this, which a student had picked up at a flea market, got me started in studying old textbooks. (Thank you, Carin!) Despite how poorly it has aged, it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its age. And, in turn, a major improvement over:
J. Dorman Steele: A Fourteen Weeks Course in Astronomy, 1869
Steele was also a textbook-factory. He wrote A Fourteen Weeks Course in Chemistry, A Fourteen Weeks Course in Natural Philosophy, A Fourteen Weeks Course in Geology and others. They were illustrated with the latest woodcuts. And they told what astronomy understood back then. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so awkward! They didn't yet have mountaintop observatories or much stellar spectroscopy. If you read Steele's book now, read it for humor or history, not for modern astronomy. Modern it is NOT! Steele published several editions from 1869 to 1884. But it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. And, especially for readability, a huge improvement over:
Sir John Herschel: Outlines of Astronomy, 1830
For the 90 years from the time the author's father, William Herschel, discovered Uranus in 1781, till John Herschel died in 1871, they were dominant authorities. His is not merely a textbook but a compendium: it is intended to record full information about the entire subject. Practically every astronomer who could read English kept a copy of this book as the first place to check for information. Usually, they could find answers in Herschel. Only if this source failed did they seek another. And yet any student passing intro-astro now should be able to amplify many of the topics. Herschel's book isn't wrong, but it is very fragmentary.
The first edition was an instant hit in 1830, and new editions kept coming, and coming, and coming. John Herschel died 41 years later, but the book still stayed in print; the final edition came out in 1905. A 75-year press run! Staggering!
Though this book contains all the information you could want, it conveys absolutely no interest at all. Even the dullest lecturer is better than this! All the excitement had to come from the reader, because none can be found in the book itself. And, of course, the stilted language further highlights its age. It is so naïve, so ignorant, so turgid! This was before spectroscopy, before the physical nature of most celestial objects could even be described. Yet it was globally-proclaimed as a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. And it was quite an improvement over:
John Bonnycastle: An Introduction of Astronomy in a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, 1786
This text is the earliest to which I've been able to trace the modern arrangement of topics. While things have certainly changed a lot in proportions and details, it seems to have been Bonnycastle whose arrangement was tweaked by succeeding authors to evolve into the common one used today.
This book is hard to read, not only because of its antiquated language, but also because of its antiquated typography: the "s" is a half-crossed "f", "ct" uses a flowery ligature, and so on. The bulk of this book deals with how things move, because almost nothing was known about what they are physically made of. This was before telescopes grew wider than 25 cm. This book is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. 8 editions of Bonnycastle's book were published in England between 1786 and 1822. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! Yet, in its time, it was a major improvement over:
James Ferguson: An Easy Introduction to Astronomy, for Young Gentlemen and Ladies: Describing The Figure, Motions, and Dimensions of the Earth; the different Seasons; Gravity and Light; the Solar System; the Transit of Venus, and its Use in Astronomy; the Moon's Motion and Phases; the Eclipses of the Sun and Moon; the Cause of the Ebbing and Flowing of the Sea, &c., 1768
James Ferguson had a full-size text (said to have interested William Herschel in astronomy) as well as this cut-down version.
This one takes the literary form of a dialog between college-man Neander and his sister Eudosia. Neander is home for term break, and his sister is pumping him for all the neat stuff he learned in his astronomy course. In the middle of page 75, Eudosia sighs.
Neander: Why do you sigh, Eudosia?
Eudosia: Because there is not an university for ladies as well as for gentlemen. Why, Neander, should our sex be kept in total ignorance of any science, which would make us as much better than we are, as it would make us wiser?
Neander: You are far from being singular in this respect. I have the pleasure of being acquainted with many ladies who think as you do. But if fathers would do justice to their daughters, brothers to their sisters, and husbands to their wives, there would be no occasion for an university for the ladies; because, if those could not instruct these themselves, they might find others who could. And the consequence would be, that the ladies would have a rational way of spending their time at home, and would have no taste for the too common and expensive ways of murdering it, by going abroad to card-tables, balls, and plays: and then, how much better wives, mothers, and mistresses they would be, is obvious to the common sense of mankind. – The misfortune is, there are but few men who know these things: and where that is the case, they think the ladies have no business with them; and very absurdly imagine, because they know nothing of science themselves, that it is beyond the reach of women's capacities.
Eudosia: But is there no danger of our sex's become too vain and proud, if they understood these things as well as you do?
Neander: I am surprised to hear you talk so oddly. – Have you forgot what you told me two days ago? namely, that if you had been proud before, the knowledge of Astronomy, you believed, would make you humble?
Neander's name means "new man". New, because he's going to college, even though he is from the newly risen moneyed commoners. Until his time, to attend either Oxford or Cambridge (the only colleges in England), one had to be a white, male, member of the Church of England, and member either of the nobility or the clergy. By that standard, I suppose that not one single one of my thousands of students would get into college! How about you? Well, they let us all in now. Let's make the best of it while we're here!
The Ferguson book now makes great comedy for its literary form, as well as for its phrasing and scientific contents. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! This was before Uranus was discovered, before gravity was proven to work beyond the solar system. The first edition was published in England in 1768, and the last in the US in 1819. Yet it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its times, and a major improvement over:
William Whiston: Astronomical Lectures Read in the Publick Schools at Cambridge, 1715
Whiston was Isaac Newton's hand-picked successor as Lucasian professor at Cambridge. (Other famous Lucasian professors: early 2000s – Stephen Hawking; 2400s – Cmdr. Data.) Whiston had a varied career worth looking into. This book poses many difficulties for the modern reader: antiquated typography, stilted phrasing, passive dullness, and overwhelming concern with the today-minor issue of sky motions. Whiston published a Latin edition in 1707, his first English edition in 1715, and a second in 1727, the year Newton died. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! This was before achromatic telescopes, before the first predicted return of Halley's Comet. While the contents aren't wrong, they barely hint at the main thrusts of modern science. Yet Whiston's book was, in its turn, a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era, and a major improvement over its predecessors ...
Past, Present and Future
You get the point. Astronomy (if not its college textbooks) goes back to early printing, to mediaeval manuscripts, to ancient scrolls, to cuneiform clay tablets and hieroglyphic-engraved stone monuments. And because scientific knowledge progresses, each edition ages rather poorly, and after a while serves better as a poor example than a good one.
Your text stands at the front of this long line. It is the modern culmination of all these successive approximations to what astronomers had learned about the universe. It is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of right now. It tells the best anyone knows. With spacecraft that have gone as far as ours, with telescopes as big as ours, this is what we have learned.
And it won't end with your book! The author is probably already updating it for the next edition. And future authors will publish new ones after that. Some of what it says may be wrong, but since we don't know which things, we teach as best we know. Many future discoveries will bring system to current odds-and-ends. Many future discoveries will bring up important aspects scarcely hinted at so far. But we can't teach them, because that stuff hasn't been learned yet.
20 years from now, we'll know a lot better than some of the things in your book. Will you be the author of that one? 50 years from now, a better text will outmode that one. And 100 years from now, a more-improved version will relegate that one to humor. And 1000 years from now, all those will look hopelessly naïve, ignorant, and mistaken! And hilarious!
We teach what we know and understand now because that's the best we can do. That's what your book tells, in all good faith, however incomplete or mistaken it may turn out to be. Study it well, use it for all it's worth, learn it as the best anyone can do so far, but learn it as a framework into which the improvements of the future can be plugged in.
[The same can be said for all subjects in which knowledge progresses. Learn all of those subjects with the same perspective.]
TEACHERS: Similar sets of new-to-old textbooks are now available for sale! In stock:
History of Science
Philosophy of Science
We can assemble similar sets in most academic subjects.
Contact normsperling [at] gmail.com to get yours. This is a VERY impressive lesson for students!
© 1999 Norm Sperling, originally published in Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet, vol. 17, no. 7, May 1999, 2.
Soon after Nicholas Copernicus published his great book De Revolutionibus in 1543, he died. This prevented the Catholic Inquisition from punishing him for his heresy in moving Earth out of the center, and making it merely one planet among many orbiting the Sun.
Copernicus's Sun-centered system came somewhat closer than anything Ptolemaic to predicting planet positions in the sky. While Copernican predictions were noticeably closer, they were still not exact. We now know the big problem was the shape of the orbits: Copernicus clung to the ancient presumption that orbits must be "perfect" circles. They aren't, but nobody knew that in the 1500s.
Though the Roman Catholic Church emphatically denied Copernican theory - even placing it on its Index of Prohibited Works from 1616 to 1835 - they did permit using it as a handy-dandy computing technique for improved results; it simply must not be taught as "true". 'Go ahead and compute that way to get the best results, but don't believe the system.'
With 20/20 hindsight, some academics have snickered at this, because we know the Earth is not the center of everything. But carry the story a few chapters further:
* Tycho makes the sharpest positional measurements,
* Kepler determines from those that orbits are ellipses, and
* Newton derives Kepler's Laws from his own Law of Universal Gravitation.
* Centuries later, Einstein overthrows Newton, regarding gravity as warps in space-time.
To calculate the path of anything moving many percent of the speed of light requires Einstein's equations; that's how they found out that Newton was wrong. But almost everything that astronomy deals with moves less than 1% of the speed of light. At such slow speeds, the numbers from calculating Einstein's formula are identical with the numbers from calculating Newton's simpler formula. So, even now, practically everybody calculates with Newton's formula, and reserves Einstein's more complicated version for the rare cases where things move really fast. They know Newton is physically wrong, they just use it as a simpler way to compute and get the same result.
What these modern astronomers do is little different from what the Church advocated centuries ago: go ahead and use the handiest formula that gives the best result, but don't believe that it is physically true. To be fair, they should stop snickering at that old Church policy, or start snickering at themselves.