The Babylonians and other ancient peoples were stargazers. They looked up at night, wondered at what they saw, and came up with remarkable answers. They studied the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, to create sundials, calendars, and star maps of astonishing accuracy. In this book, Isaac Asimov tells about the fascinating ways that ancient astronomers started us on our quest for knowledge of the cosmos.
This is an unusually disappointing entry in “Isaac Asimov’s Library of the Universe.” As with The World’s Space Programs, it is somewhat misnamed. It isn’t about astronomy, it’s more a “How Did We Find Out About Astronomy Lite”—it tells the story of astronomy from ancient times up through the Copernican revolution.
This is a story which Asimov has told oft before, and usually quite well. Unfortunately, the general style and short length of the books in “Isaac Asimov’s Library of the Universe”—which are quite good when presenting a series of factoids about a planet or something similar—work against him here, and the result is an overly brief and choppy narrative. (Nor all the pictures so wonderful as to make up for it.)
And Asimov’s typical Eurocentrism shows. Ancient astronomic traditions outside of the West are given scant space. China, for example, is given one paragraph (and Polynesia is lumped in with it as “Astronomy of the Far East”). That one paragraph, moreover, includes a legendary story from the Shujing which is undoubtedly false, and (even worse) not nearly as dramatic as true stories about Chinese astronomy that illustrate the importance it held in traditional Chinese culture. But it’s the only story Asimov ever learned, and so he tells it. And as for Indian astronomy—nothing at all is said.
(I understand, of course, why Asimov knew so much about Europe and so little about the Far East, and I’m not faulting him for being a child of his times. My criticism is more that there are stories here that he would have told marvelously did he but know them, and it’s our loss that we never got to hear those stories in his words.)
Definitely not the high point of the series, this is one book one could just as easily do without.