Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists

Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists

Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists

Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists


Galileo, Newton, Herschel, Huggins, Hale, Eddington, Shapley and Hubble: these astronomers applied ideas drawn from physics to astronomy and made dramatic changes to the world-pictures that they inherited. They showed that celestial objects are composed of the same materials as the earth and that they behave in the same way. They displaced successively the earth, the sun and finally the milky way galaxy from being the centre of the universe.
This book contains their biographies and outlines their greatest discoveries. Hard work, physical insight, desire for fame and a strong belief in the rightness of their own ideas were characteristics of all eight. Their often quirky personalities led them into bitter controversies with their contemporaries. But their successes arose from the outstanding clarity of their thoughts, their practical ability and their strong sense of direction in science.


As a teenager I derived great pleasure and inspiration from reading the book Men of Mathematics, written by a friend of the cosmologist Edwin Hubble, Professor Eric Temple Bell (1937) of Caltech. In colourful language he described the lives and achievements of the great mathematicians and I later regretted that nothing similar was available in my own field—astrophysics. This book was initially conceived to fill the gap but, as the project matured, I found that I preferred to take a more serious approach than Bell and therefore chose a smaller number of subjects.

Ultimately, I selected eight 'astro-physicists', each of whom made at least one important discovery by applying the methods of physical science to astronomy. Indeed, several dramatically altered the prevailing world picture with consequences that went far beyond science and became part of the intellectual foundations of their times. Their ideas ultimately affected the outlook of every thinking person, even if the details of what they had done were not always easy to understand. Though most numerate people are aware of Galileo, Newton, Hubble, and their contributions to science, in their own times the other five were also important figures, known even to the general public.

Today 'astronomy' and 'astrophysics' are almost indistinguishable. The latter word was introduced in the nineteenth century, somewhat gratuitously, by Huggins and his contemporaries in order to to emphasise the spectroscopic revolution that they were associated with. In fact, the development of astronomy has always been stimulated by ideas drawn from physics, whether theoretical or practical. Before the word 'astrophysics' came into existence, the phrase 'Physical Astronomy' was commonly used. In 1852, it had been the subject of a famous book, the History of Physical Astronomy by Robert Grant, professor of astronomy in Glasgow. The hyphen I have used in the sub-title of this book is there to emphasise the fact that earlier physical astronomers than Huggins and his successors have been included.

Contributions to our understanding of the universe were also, of course, made by many others besides the subjects of the present book. A good few of them have been referred to in passing but there is a limit to what can reasonably be included. Though every particular development depended on the work of many predecessors, not all of these could be mentioned. It is therefore hoped that the lives of the chosen eight will illustrate in a general way the scientific and social

Full title: History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of the
Nineteenth Century. Comprehending a Detailed Account of the Establishment of the Theory
of Gravitation by Newton, and its Development by his Successors; with an Exposition of the
Progress of Research on All the Other Subjects of Celestial Physics.

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