Kenneth Lang’s book blends astronomy, art, and history. It’s a unique volume to my experience, and mostly an enjoyable read.
Professor Lang looks at five major topics, in five large chapters:
- Cosmic Vision, War, and Technology
- Brave New Worlds
- Motion, Content, and Form
- The Explosive Universe
- The Fullness of Space
He wraps up with an epilogue, “Origins and Destinies.”
To give you a sample of the range of this book, in the second chapter, the author describes the era of exploration on Earth dating from Columbus and Magellan, and quickly recaps the situation by the mid-20th century when all the gaps in our planet’s map had been filled in. What new worlds await from Everst and the poles? Lunar exploration, and robot probes to the planets are briefly described, with the thrilling and classic images sent back to Earth. So after other planets had been mapped, we come to the current era of discovery of planets orbiting distant stars. Like the others, this chapter is peppered reflections on paintings: Paul Klee’s Full Moon and Rufino Tamayo’s Mujeres alcanzando la luna. My favorite painting examined is Hair Pursued by 2 Planets by Joan Miró.
Which brings me to my frustration with this book: its great promise is flawed by non-existent editing. Professor Lang cites this painting as “Hair followed by two planets.” A small error or typo, perhaps. Maybe a mistranslation of the Spanish (in which case, maybe the Spanish title would have been fitting). But it’s an error repeated fairly often in the text: misspellings, historical mistakes, and even the occasional mix-up like citing the speed of the Earth’s revolution around the sun as one-twentieth that of the Concorde. (It’s actually the supersonic plane that flew at one-twentieth of the orbital speed of the Earth.)
Springer is a science publisher, but really. A publisher that produces books for both the science-minded amateur as well as science professors should be sharp enough to hire a freelancer to review history, art, and spelling. They owe a skilled writer with a fabulous approach that much.
Can you overlook stuff like this? I suppose I could to the extent I can recommend this book with that caution. But a brilliant idea is damaged: using not just pretty pictures, but fine painting to enhance a book on the history of astronomy. The story of the discoveries in astronomy is presented not in chronological order nor in any scientific sequence, but along thematic lines. These six extended essays are aided in their development by a deep appreciation for images of the universe as well as the artist’s imagination. Each can be read as a stand-alone piece.
Of all the sciences, I’d say that astronomy feeds our curiosity as much as any rational discipline. But it also inspires our cultural output and religious sensibilities. The author doesn’t explore much of the latter, and it might just be me, but I see it in the images presented. I see it easily.
It makes me want to look further to the farthest boundaries, and not just in outer space. Good books should move us in this way, and this one, despite editorial flaws, does the job.