Print — Martin Harwit’s Cosmic Discovery (Basic Books, 1981) differs from almost every other book on astronomical history by looking at the discovery process itself. Perhaps the most productive thing an astronomer can do, according to Harwit, is to be the first to use a new instrument, or one with markedly improved sensitivity (or resolution), or one that looks into an unexamined part of the electromagnetic spectrum. After reading Harwit’s book, you’ll feel better equipped to appreciate future astronomical surprises.
Good histories of astronomy (although not emphasizing the surprise factor) are Astronomy of the 20th Century by Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs (Macmillan, 1962), Antonie Pannekoek’s A History of Astronomy (Dover Publications, 1989), and The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, edited by Michael Hoskin (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
In the field of planetary science, take a look at Babylon to Voyager and Beyond by David Leverington (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Planetary research is a field that perfectly embodies Harwit’s dictum about using new instruments, because the subject barely existed until the 1960s, when spacecraft visits to planets finally began to show scientists the solar system as it really is.
Web — A google search for “astronomy history” turns up a great many sites on the subject. A good one that focuses mostly on astronomy through the Renaissance is by Robert H. van Gent at www.phys.uu.nl/~vgent/homepage.htm .
Galileo’s path-breaking Sidereus Nuncius is available in book form in an excellent translation by Albert van Helden (University of Chicago Press, 1989); the Latin text and illustrations are online at www.gmu.edu/departments/fld/CLASSICS/galileo/galileo.sid.html.
Tycho’s book about the 1572 supernova, De Nova Stella, is online (in Latin, of course, and with a concurrent Danish translation) at www.texts.dnlb.dk/DeNovaStella/Index.html . (“Naeste” and “Forrige” on the web pages are Danish for “Next” and “Preceding,” respectively.)
V. M. Slipher’s report on the radial velocity of the Andromeda “Nebula” is in the Lowell Observatory Bulletin for 1911. The two-page paper is available through NASA’s Astrophysics Data System at adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html; search with “Slipher, V.” as the author, 1911 as the year, and “Andromeda nebula” in the title.
An online introduction to gravitational-wave observatories and experiments is at www.gothosenterprises.com/gravitational_waves, another, aimed at secondary-school children, is at imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/features/topics/gwaves/gwaves.html. Gravity-wave observatories (actual and proposed) are at: Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), www.ligo.caltech.edu; and Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), lisa.jpl.nasa.gov.
String theory has an online guide at superstringtheory.com that’s aimed at beginners.
Print — The idea that stars created most of the elements that life needs was once controversial. For the fascinating story of how the elements arose, see Ken Croswell’s highly acclaimed book The Alchemy of the Heavens (Anchor Books, 1995).
An overview of planetary nebulae appears in two books by Sun Kwok, the popular-level Cosmic Butterflies (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and the more technical The Origin and Evolution of Planetary Nebulae (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Print — Introduction to Comets by John C. Brandt and Robert D. Chapman (Cambridge University Press, 2004) is an advanced undergraduate textbook covering everything you need to know about comets.
David H. Levy’s Guide to Observing and Discovering Comets (Cambridge University Press, 2003) explains how comets are named, gives tips on visually observing comets, and discusses how views of comets have changed since ancient times.
Web — S. Alan Stern’s paper on where Sedna may have formed, and its current orbit, is at arXiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0404525.
For more information on the ESA/NASA Rosetta mission to land on a comet, visit www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Rosetta.
Print — For an illustrated guide to stellar evolution, see Marcia Bartusiak’s “The amazing lives of two stars” (Astronomy, November, 2004).
“Transits of Earth as seen from Mars,” by Meeus and Edwin Goffin, appeared in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association in 1983. The full article is available through NASA’s Astrophysics Data System at adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html; search with “Meeus, J.” as the author, 1983 as the year, and “transits” in the title.
Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Transit of Earth” first appeared in the January 1971 issue of Playboy, and it has been reprinted in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (Tor Books, 2001).
Belgian astronomer Jean Meeus discusses transits seen from planets other than Earth in his book Transits (Willmann-Bell, 1998).
Interested in observing stars at various points during their evolution? Then check out Observer’s Guide to Stellar Evolution (Springer, 2003) by Mike Inglis. An Introduction to the Sun and Stars (Cambridge University Press, 2004), written by S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell et al. and edited by Simon F. Green and Mark H. Jones, is a textbook based off an introduction to astronomy course at the Open University. This text contains little math and a lot of information.