In the 3rd century BC, Aristarchus of Samos developed a heliocentric model in which the sun is at the centre, with Earth and the other planets revolving around it. This model was rejected by other scientists until Nicolaus Copernicus picked it up again 1,800 years later and initiated the Copernican Revolution. One of the reasons for the rejection of a heliocentric model was that stellar parallax, the apparent shift of position of any nearby star against the background of distant objects, could not be observed until the 19th century due to the lack of adequate instruments. In 1838, Friedrich Bessel successfully measured the parallax of the star 61 Cygni, a binary star in the constellation Cygnus.
This book succeeds on various levels. It not only explains the science in a very accessible way, so that even a not that scientifically inclined reader can easily understand what the author is talking about, but also clarifies why it was and is that important to know the distance of stars as exactly as possible. Furthermore, it is written like a detective story. The search for the stellar parallax was not only the hunt for the Holy Grail of astronomy, it was also a game of inches that spanned about 2,000 years, and in which one step forward could truly be another part of the puzzle, or could mean going down the wrong path, and thus leading to two steps back. Many mistakes and errors in thought and action were made, and not only the technical limitations of their time damned many of the people involved to failure, but also their human flaws like hubris or jealousy.
It is, in general, a very typical story about the advancement of humankind which is often propelled by obsession and relentlessness. These scientists were so focused on their quest that they would not give up. They dedicated their lives to it, and to their absolute belief that they were right, if they could ony prove it. Many of them had exceptional and fascinating life stories, and not only the giants like Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo leave lasting impressions in this story, but also the, rather unfairly, lesser knowns like James Bradley who, in the early 18th century, finally provided the proof for the correctness of the heliocentric model, not through stellar parallax, but through the discovery of the aberration of light.
This book not only combines two of the subjects I’m most interested in, history and astronomy, but is really my favourite kind of book: highly enjoyable and intriguing, while teaching me a lot. Looking up at the night sky and the stars illuminating it is a look into the past and the composition of the universe; reading this book shows the path to humanity’s comprehension of it thus far.
CBR11 Bingo: I Love This