Top 10 Astronomy Books in History
Yes, it is a bit ambitious to come up with an “all time” best astronomy book list—but the fun is in the trying. The following list combines 10 classic historical astronomy books (including star charts), along with 10 of the most influential and widely used modern books for amateur astronomy.
Historical Books on Astronomy, Physics, and Cosmology
Star Catalog by Hipparchus of Nicaea (C. 135 BC)
Hipparchus’s star catalog (which did not survive present day) contained about 850 stars, and was the basis for the catalog portion of the Almagest, al-Sufi’s work described below, as well as for Copernicus in the sixteenth century.
Almagest by Claudius Ptolemy (C. 147-148 AD)
One of the more influential astronomy texts in history despite its erroneous proponency of the Geocentric Model. Ptolemy’s work held sway for over 1200 years, and bridged the gap between Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Islamic civilization. The name of this work itself speaks to the sharing of knowledge throughout history: it was originally called Mathematike Syntaxis in Ancient Greek, Syntaxis Mathematica (Almagestum) in Latin, and Almagest is Arabic (al-majisiti) deriving from Ancient Greek megiste “greatest”). Interestingly, we call it Almagest today because of the popularity of a Latin translation of an Arabic version in the 12th century, which was relied upon in the West until original Greek copies were re-discovered 300 years later.
Dunhuang Star Chart (C. 700 AD)
The earliest known complete preserved star atlas, composed of 1,300 stars. It was discovered in 1900 in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, which was an eastern stop on the Silk Road.
Book of Fixed Stars by Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (C. 964 AD)
Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi was a Persian astronomer who wrote his work in Arabic as a means to unify Greek and Arabic astronomical observations. Interestingly, it contains the first known references to other galaxies including the Andromeda Galaxy (referred to as “the cloud” and the Large Magellanic Cloud.
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543)
This is the famous work that openly advocated the Heliocentric Model. Note: Hipparchus considered the Heliocentric model, but abandoned it because the planets did not move in perfect circles. Copernicus did not publish his magnus opus until he was on his death bed, fearing a strong negative reaction from the authorities.
Astronomia Nova by Johannes Kepler (1609)
This book, the result of ten years of studying the motion of Mars, provided strong proof of the Heliocentric Model. It also provided the first mention of the planets orbiting in elliptical paths. Kepler’s book relied heavily upon the work of Tycho Brahe, whom he had a tumultuous relationship with. Nevertheless, Astronomia Nova fulfilled Brahe’s deathbed exhortation for Kepler to ensure he not die in vain.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei (1632)
Galileo wrote this book as a dialogue between two people debating the Heliocentric and Geocentric models, although it is clear Galileo preferred the former. The Inquisition placed the book on the Index of Forbidden Books list, where it lasted until 1835! Galileo was tried and found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, where he wrote another monumental book (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) that discusses his findings in physics.
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (1687)
Principia is one of the most important works not just in the history of astronomy, but also in all of science. The Principia is where Newton published his laws of motion, his law of universal gravitation, and he used math that is now included in the field of Calculus—which he and the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formulated separately.
Mars and Its Canals by Percival Lowell (1906
Yes, Percival Lowell’s observations and theories on Martian canals were spectacularly wrong, but they also generated enormous interest in extraterrestrial life. Unlike the work of a charlatan, Lowell honestly believed in what he saw, and he did not publish his observations deceitfully. (One theory propounds that by stopping down the aperture of his telescopes, Lowell unknowingly created an ophthalmoscope in his eyepiece, and was in fact looking at the blood vessels in his eyes and mistook them for canals.) Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto) remains a wonderful place to visit.
Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein (1916)
The impact of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity cannot be overstated. Newtonian physics is accurate enough for us to send space probes to the planets, but not precise enough to predict Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. This is where Einstein’s concept of gravity and spacetime come in, and it forever changed mankind’s way of viewing the universe.
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Modern Books on Amateur Astronomy and Cosmology
Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier (1960)
This is the quintessential book on amateur astronomy—a true classic. This autobiography by famed comet hunter Leslie Peltier harkens back to a simpler time. It is equally a book about astronomy as it is about the curiosity of a scientific mind. To give you a brief example of his beautiful prose:
“Were I to write out one prescription designed to help alleviate at least some of the self-made miseries of mankind, it would read like this: ONE GENTLE DOSE OF STARLIGHT TO BE TAKEN EACH CLEAR NIGHT JUST BEFORE RETIRING.”
Do yourself a favor: pick up a copy of Starlight Nights.
Burnham’s Celestial Handbook: An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System (Volumes 1-3) by Robert Burnham Jr. (1978)
The life of Robert Burnham Jr. is simultaneously amazing and tragic. In 1957, as a teenager in Prescott, Arizona he gained local fame after discovering a comet, and he parlayed a visit from Senator Barry Goldwater towards a job at Lowell Observatory to work on a survey of stellar proper motion—where he went on to discover five more comets. Over the next two decades, he put together in scrap book fashion tens of thousands of astronomical object references—along with a random assortment of poems, quotes, and other references—into an incomparable three-volume celestial handbook. Nothing like it was available to amateur astronomers at the time, and it remains a treasure to this day.
Unfortunately, after the survey project at Lowell Observatory expired, they did not have a job for him, and his life went downhill from there. Burnham turned increasingly reclusive and departed the Flagstaff area unannounced, ultimately settling in San Diego, where he hung out at Balboa Park and sold cat paintings—his only source of income besides royalty checks for his books. He died alone, and it took years before his family found out. His family did not announce his death, for they did not know of the thousands of amateur astronomers who cherished his handbooks! (There are even more fascinating and coincidental details, which will likely form a future blog post.) Yet, the beauty, uniqueness, and comprehensiveness of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook stands the test of time.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980)
This book serves as a companion guide to the famous television series, which launched the legend of Carl Sagan as astronomer and science ambassador extraordinaire.
Uranometria 2000.0 by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport, and Will Remaklus (1987-present)
This list began with Hipparchus’s star catalogue, and Uranometria 2000.0 is the current gold standard for amateur astronomers. Featuring over 280,000 stars down to magnitude 9.75, and over 30,000 deep sky objects, this star atlas is all you need to plan your astronomy sessions.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
This book made Stephen Hawking a household name. The surest sign of masterful teaching is when the teacher makes complex concepts sound simple, and Hawking delivered this in spades.
Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope - and How to Find Them by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis (1989-present)
With such a creative and approachable title, this classic spiral-bound observers guide fills the gap between a newcomers’ book and a detailed star atlas. Offering hundreds of observing projects, this book realistically portrays how deep sky objects look through amateur telescopes.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan (1994)
As much as we want to spread the wealth here and not pick two books by the same author, it is impossible to ignore the outsized impact Carl Sagan had on popularizing astronomy and cosmology in the 20th Century—not to mention the significance of this book for the future of mankind.
Bright Galaxies Dark Matters by Vera Rubin (1996)
Vera Rubin’s work was instrumental in proving the existence of dark matter, even though the Nobel Committee did not recognize her for that distinction. Her life is a testament to perseverance, conquering adversity, and letting your work speak for you.
Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2007)
This anthology is among Neil deGrasse Tyson’s more popular books, and cemented him as the inheritor of Carl Sagan’s role as the premier spokesperson for science and astronomy.
The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy by Dr. Emily Winterburn (2018)
For all the notoriety William Herschel received for his observations and discoveries, in fact his wife Caroline was the silent workhorse behind many of his achievements.
Did we miss an obvious book, or did we get any of these books wrong? Let us know at Deep Sky Coffee Astronomy Blog.