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The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy Hardcover – October 1, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0195095395 ISBN-10: 0195095391

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (October 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195095391
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195095395
  • Product Dimensions: 10.9 x 1.5 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #648,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

In Ptolemy's The Almagest, the earth is placed at the center of the universe and the planets move in crystal spheres against a backdrop of fixed stars. While these ideas have been swept away since the scientific revolution, Ptolemy's influence on astronomy was profound and long--we'll be dealing with the Y3K problem before Copernicus's time of influence catches up.

James Evans, historian and astronomer at the University of Puget Sound, believes that "staying close to the practice of astronomy means explaining a subject in enough detail for the reader to understand what the ancient astronomers actually did." As this unique book teaches you to do astronomy the old-fashioned way, you gain a profoundly deeper understanding of what the Greeks and their successors thought and did. "There is all the difference in the world between knowing about and knowing how to do," says Evans. The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy is truly hands-on history, and deserves to be widely imitated. --Mary Ellen Curtin


"The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy is one of the most exciting and original books ever written on ancient, as well as medieval and Renaissance, astronomy, indeed, on the history of science. Here, for the first time, the reader can learn not only about ancient astronomy, but how to do ancient astronomy. The breadth of coverage is encyclopedic, from the Babylonians and Greeks, Ptolemy in particular, through Arabic astonomers of the middle ages, to Copernicus and Kepler. James Evans writes with an understanding and clarity that guides the reader through two thousand years of astronomy so that it is, as it were, brought back to life and can be understood as thoroughly as modern science. This is an ideal way to write the history of science and to learn the history of science." --N.M. Swerdlow, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Chicago

"Jim Evans combines a keen historical sense with a tinkerer's ingenuity and a gifted teacher's enthusiasm. His perceptive physical insights illuminate the intricacies of the early planetary theories. What I find particularly marvelous is the accuracy of his presentation (something remarkably hard to come by)." --Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"It is a beautifully designed book, comprising 475 8-by-11 inch pages with clearly drawn illustrations . . . Based on twenty years of teaching his students not just ideas, but the actual nitty-gritty of historic models, Jim has masterfully explicated a tremendous range of historical astronomy, stretching from the Babylonians to Kepler. The focus is on the Greeks and Ptolemy, but much else is also covered. In each case he explains the astronomy in a modern sense and then carefully shows what the ancient astronomers actually did. Relying on tables and graphical methods more than geometry and trigonometry, he gives examples and provides exercises that allow the reader to enter worlds of the past. In addition, patterns and instructions are given so that one can construct and use cardboard versions of an astrolabe and of Ptolemaic slats. . . . Rarely does one see such a combination of usefulness, elegance, accuracy, and scholarship."--HAD News

"There are many 'history of astronomy' books, but none that I've seen attempt to do what James Evans does--which is to show how astronomical observations and calculations were done in ancient and medieval times. His massive book of almost 500 oversized pages is heavily illustrated with hundreds of black-and-white diagrams showing how astronomers long ago made their computations. . . . This book tells not only the what, but also the how. . . . This book . . . provides an enormous amount of information on how astronomers through the millennia made their observations and calculations and on how they were influenced by each other and extended the work of their predecessors. None worked in a vacuum, and Evans traces how ideas flowed through the centuries. . . . We all talk about ancient astronomy in our planetarium shows. This heavy book will show the dedicated student how to actually do ancient astronomy. It is wonderful . . . There is no other like it."--Planetarian

"Evans offers one of the most comprehensive books on ancient astronomy. The title is appropriate, for it encompasses astronomy from ancient Babylonian observations through the zenith of Greek science during the eight centuries beginning about 600 BCE, through the Middle Ages in Europe and the Islamic lands of the Middle East, to Copernicus and Kepler. This Western tradition centers on the observable sky and its measure. . . . [T]he book can be used as a text for hands-on work in such areas as navigation and surveying, as well as in studying the historical development of the field. In its devotion to detail, it has few equals. Though limited to pretelescopic astronomy, it has much for the present-day astronomy on constellations, due to the richness and sophistication of the astronomy of these periods. As treatise, handbook, and source, it is unexcelled. Recommended for all libraries."--Choice

"Evans . . . shows with clarity and skill how the tradition passed down the years through several translations and commentaries in Greek, Arabic and Latin, before finally reaching the culminating achievements of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. These Renaissance astronomers followed in Ptolemy's footsteps until Kepler finally abandoned the entire edifice of the geocentric cosmology . . . I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about the fascinating history of the intellectual struggle to bring sense to the celestial sphere and the complicated motions of the planets. The printing and binding are of high standard, while the index is both useful and detailed. There are also numerous figures and tables that enrich the clarity of the explanations. . . . If you would like to know more about the technical side of ancient astronomy, this book is for you . . . Certainly every university library should have a copy on its shelves."--Physics World

"[This book] surveys two thousand years of astronomy, from the Babylonian and Greek periods through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. General readers, classicists, and astronomers will find this book accessible, informative, and, above all, illustrative of the tools, methods and uses to which the practice of astronomy was applied during these periods. Organized in a textbook-like manner of historical introduction followed by application and example, the book challenges readers on a practical level by encouraging the construction and use of several mechanical models; the astrolabe, sundial, and Ptolemaic slats, from patterns provided by the author. . . . [The book] is highly recommended for upper-level undergraduates in the areas of astronomy, history of science and classics. Other readers may find Evan's [sic] book difficult reading at times but will look far and wide before finding a basic treatment of this subject so clearly written and comprehensive in scope."--E-STREAMS

"While tracing ideas from ancient Babylon to Renaissance Europe, Evans emphasizes the details of astronomical practice. He discusses the evidence used to reconstruct ancient astronomy, and shows readers how they can do astronomy using ancient methods."--Science

"[H]istorians all too easily forget how much of relevance can be learned from surviving artefacts. This is especially true of the history of Antiquity . . . Thus the highly sophisticated gearing mechanism found in the sea in 1900 . . . has no counterpart in the written record, and no historian would have believed such a mechanism possible in Antiquity . . . The problem is that we are trained to read books, but artefacts are less easy for us to comprehend. As far as ancient astronomy is concerned, the problem has now been solved by this handsome and quite admirable volume. The author . . . deals in successive chapters with the birth of astronomy; the celestial sphere; applications of spherics; calendars and time reckoning; solar theory; the fixed stars; and planetary theory. A most unusual but welcome feature is the constant demand from the author that the reader demonstrate his mastery of the explanation by tackling exercises . . ."--Meteoritics & Planetary Science

"James Evans's book is a large-scale detailed survey of practically all facets of Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman astronomy, both mathematical and nonmathematical, from the second millennium B.C. to the second century A.D. Evans's conception of astronomy is not just an intellectual pasttime but very much an activity, and one that the reader is continually invited to share. One learns how to convert dates between ancient calendars, how to compile a Greek-style weather calendar, how to make a sundial, how to use an astrolabe, how to calculate planetary positions in both the Babylonian and Ptolemy's manner. Trying these things out for oneself is often the most effective way of understanding the principles, and one also gains a much more accurate general impression of what this astronomy was about than from conventional presentations that focus almost exclusively on the evolution of celestial mechanics." - American Journal of Physics, Vol. 68, No. 3, March 2000

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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See all 16 customer reviews
There is extensive detail about Ptolemy in the book.
Daniel Putman
Both the technical and historical aspects are generally presented with admirable clarity.
Viktor Blasjo
It's both an introduction to astronomy and an introduction to history of astronomy!
Helmer Aslaksen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 5, 1998
Format: Hardcover
An impressive compendium of thousands of years of astronomy--from Babylon to Copernicus. In tracing the history of star-gazing, Evans traces the history of science, showing how ideas arose, migrated, stood up or failed under testing, and were passed down through the centuries. One learns a deep respect for ancient astronomers. Almost 2,000 years before Columbus, Greek scientists had figured out that the world was round, and had even determined that the Earth was miniscule compared to the size of the universe. Evans is committed to the idea of learning by doing, so he gives detailed instructions on how to construct every instrument that ancient astronomers used--from sundials to astrolabes. The book is full of great science projects. I would strongly recommend this book for those interested in the history of science, ancient and medieval thought, backyard astronomy... even astrologers would benefit greatly from this book.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Helmer Aslaksen on July 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The big problem when writing a book about history of science, is how much background to include. If you don't include any background, the ordinary reader will not really get what's going on. Evans has instead written what can best be described as a two-fold book. It's both an introduction to astronomy and an introduction to history of astronomy! His explanations, and particularly his illustrations, are excellent. Both his scholarship and his writing are exceptional! Read it!
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By MzF on September 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I love this book, but some publisher blemishes diminish it from a perfect five to a mere four.
For a long time I've been looking for a book to explain how astronomical observations and calculations were made by the "ancients". I recently discovered this book and it seems to have everything I was looking for. Indeed, after only reading 2 or 3 pages I've learned a great deal; for example, what star risings and settings mean and how they were used determine the calendar. In thumbing through later pages I see promises of explaining all sorts observations and how they were made. For example, how can you accurately determine the position and motion of the sun in a star field when the sun obliterates the view of the stars near it? The historical precedents and chronology presented also help make this book a great pleasure to anticipation.
However there are two deficiencies, in my opinion, that detract from the book. One is in the presentation and one is the fault of the current publisher, Oxford Press.
This book needs a much better index, and, if possible, a glossary of terms. I don't read a book like this sequentially. I read a part that looks interesting, move ahead, then go back to clarify something, then move forward, then back again; a kind of iterative learning. By the time I finish I will have, literally, read it two, or three, or more times. I'm not very knowledgeable in astronomy and this book introduces many new terms that are very similar sounding, and defines them, casually, in the middle of paragraphs. Thus, it difficult to keep track. I'm sure it would interfere with the flow of the presentation, but clearly highlighted definitions and a more complete index would help.
My real complaint is with Oxford Press.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Justin A. Goodwin on January 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is great book. I got to take the class for which the book was the class book, and the author was the professor. Class time was used for discussing the history and practice of the ancient astronomers from the babylonians to copernicus. We then were able to take a lab time to go through the well written excerisize to actually do the astronomy as, say, the ancient greeks did it. You can learn how the ancient greeks were able to predict the position of the stars and planets using the principle that the earth is the center of the universe. I took the class 2 years ago, and every once and awhile i pull out the book just to read through or make a new astrolobe plate.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Viktor Blasjo on June 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is an extremely useful book; by far the most user-friendly guide to ancient astronomy available. Both the technical and historical aspects are generally presented with admirable clarity. My only complaint is that the early chapters on pre-Ptolemaic ideas are too cursorily treated. Unlike the thorough discussion of Ptolemy's system and the outline of Copernicus' system, this early material is presented in recipe-book form with little emphasis on ideas.

Consider for example the theory of the gnomon. Much time is spent discussing gnomon plots (i.e. plots of the shadow cast by a vertical stick in the course of a day) and their practical uses. But our curiosity is suppressed: looking at a sequence of gnomon plots over the course of a year (p. 54) one naturally wonders why the curves are hyperbolas, except the equinoxes where the curve is straight. Not even the latter is explained. This is very unfortunate because it would have paid off greatly to think about these interesting and natural questions at this stage, since the answers lead naturally to several ideas developed subsequently. Let's see how. Why hyperbolas? Because the sun moves in a circle, thus generating a cone with the tip of the gnomon as vertex; drawing the gnomon plot amounts to cutting this cone with a plane, so one gets a conic section. Why straight at the equinoxes? Because then the daily orbit of the sun contains the tip of the gnomon in its interior; drawing the gnomon plot amounts to cutting this plane with a plane, so one gets a line.

These simple insights are very fruitful. They immediately suggest Ptolemy's equatorial ring (p. 206), for example. And they would have helped us greatly in the construction of the sundial (pp.
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