Cover image for Setting sail for the universe : astronomers and their discoveries
Setting sail for the universe : astronomers and their discoveries
Fernie, Donald.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 192 pages ; 22 cm
Subject Term:
Added Uniform Title:
American scientist.
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Call Number
Material Type
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QB15 .F39 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This collection brings together for the first time twenty-eight of noted astronomer Donald Fernie's best "Marginalia" columns from American Scientist magazine. Published between 1985 and the present (and updated as necessary), the articles focus on the history of astronomy, bringing life to many of the people who have sought to explain what we observe above us in the night sky. Written in an engaging style, these tales of discovery will be of interest to the general reader as well as those with a science background.

Fernie recounts the remarkable tales of human adventures, struggle, and follies behind some well-known and lesser-known scientific conquests of the past few centuries, such as the contentious discovery of Neptune and the misguided search for Vulcan, a proposed planet between the Sun and Mercury. Several of the articles focus on the characters themselves, such as Edmond Halley of Halley's comet fame, or the obscure Jeremiah Horrocks, who made the first realistic determination of the distance from the sun to the earth, as well as a pre-Newtonian suggestion of the existence of an attractive force now known as gravity.

Author Notes

Now retired, Donald Fernie is the founder of the astronomy department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is the former chair of the University of Toronto's astronomy department and past director of its David Dunlap Observatory. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1972 and is an affiliate of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

This is a collection of two dozen essays about astronomy written by college professor Fernie and originally published in American Scientist, a publication of the scientific society Sigma Xi. Subjects vary from Stonehenge to Sirius, but most delve into discoveries about the solar system: six recount expeditions to observe rare transits of Venus across the solar disk. A transit is a means to figure out the distance between the earth and the sun, but it requires observations from points widely spaced apart. This method, Fernie relates, is the lasting contribution to astronomy by one precocious Jeremiah Horrocks before he died at age 22. Frustratingly, astronomers had to wait for a century and a quarter, until 1761, to act on Horrocks' idea. Waiting for planetary alignments, an occupational hazard for astronomers, seems to be a motif across Fernie's topics, and their unwillingness to put in the necessary waiting time cost the British bragging rights to the discovery of Neptune. The great variety in topics makes this an appealing diversion for astronomy buffs. --Gilbert Taylor

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsp. ix
1. The Ghost of Mount Wilsonp. 1
2. Candid Posterity and the Englishman. Ip. 9
3. Candid Posterity and the Englishman. IIp. 16
4. Bloody Siriusp. 23
5. Stonehenge and the Archaeoastronomersp. 30
6. Alexander Thom and Archaeoastronomyp. 37
7. The Shape of the Earth. Ip. 42
8. The Shape of the Earth. IIp. 49
9. The Shape of the Earth. IIIp. 55
10. The Last Universalistp. 63
11. The Great Moon Hoaxp. 69
12. The Tunguska Eventp. 75
13. Comets--Again!p. 81
14. In Pursuit of Vulcanp. 86
15. The Neptune Affairp. 93
16. The Great Debatep. 101
17. The Extraordinary and Short-Lived Career of Jeremiah Horrocksp. 108
18. The Mysterious Gamma-Ray Burstersp. 115
19. Transits, Travels, and Tribulations. Ip. 121
20. Transits, Travels, and Tribulations. IIp. 128
21. Transits, Travels, and Tribulations. IIIp. 134
22. Transits, Travels, and Tribulations. IVp. 141
23. Transits, Travels, and Tribulations. Vp. 147
24. The American Keplerp. 153
25. Eclipse Vicissitudes: Thomas Edison and the Chickensp. 159
26. In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru. Ip. 165
27. In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru. IIp. 171
28. In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru. IIIp. 177
Notesp. 183
Referencesp. 185
Indexp. 189