© 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!