MAN’S CHANGING CONCEPTS OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
In The Kingdom of the Sun, Issac [sic] Asimov traces man’s long pursuit of knowledge of the sun and the solar system it dominates. Dr. Asimov begins with an account of the early Babylonian observations of lunar eclipses and the astronomical studies of the early Greeks and Arabians. And he elucidates the importance of the subsequent contributions of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johann Kepler, Isaac Newton, and all of the major intellects down to Albert Einstein who committed themselves to expanding our knowledge of the universe.
“I began this book with the Babylonians of 2,500 years ago, watching the stars slowly wheel in the sky. I have concluded it with the last mysterious notion in the solar system answered to the satisfaction of astronomers. The machinery of the sun and its planets seems complete. Is there anything left to do? Of course, there is.…After all, Ptolemy was not quite right. Copernicus was more satisfactory, but he was not quite right, either. Newton was even more satisfactory and he was not quite right. Something must lie beyond Einstein, too.…Our generation may be the lucky one. It may include the first people who will gather the information, instead of waiting for it to come here. Our generation may be the first to break out of our planetary prison and invade other provinces of the kingdom of the sun.”
—from Chapter Ten
This is Asimov’s first foray into the history of astronomy (at least, at book length), and is, like all the Abelard-Schuman science juveniles, a top-notch job. Here he outlines the advancing knowledge of the solar system from ancient times through the 1950’s. There is much not touched on here—indeed, it is largely an account of observations of the solar systems, planetary positions and satellite counts, and little about the physical nature of the planets or their moons. Still, what is here is interesting, is clearly explained, and is a good introduction to much of the history of astronomy for the young reader.
Unfortunately, astronomy is a science which has advanced enormously in the last thirty-five years. (Indeed, the book ends with the vision of men on the moon in a few years, and rockets exploring the planets, leading to all sorts of exciting discoveries, which has definitely come to pass.) As a result, Asimov’s astronomy books suffer more from being out-dated than many of his other non-fiction books, and this one in particular misses out on all the exciting things which have been found since 1960. There is little here which later observations have proven actually wrong, and as a history, it still passes muster, so this is not a book to be avoided by any means—but neither, alas, is it a completely current introduction to the adventure of discovering the solar system.