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Star Guide

Visiting professor Marcia Bartusiak has compiled an anthology of history’s most important astronomical discoveries.

Archives of the Universe:
A Treasury of Astronomy’s
Historic Works of Discovery

Edited by Marcia Bartusiak
Pantheon, 2004
$35.00

Marcia Bartusiak recalls the moment she became captivated with as­tronomy: one evening when she was seven years old, she looked up at the sky and asked her father why a pot appeared to be suspended in the air. Realizing that she was talking about the Big Dipper, her father began naming other constellations and showed her that two stars on the bowl of the Big Dipper pointed to the North Star. It was the one star that never moved, he explained, while the heavens appeared to rotate around it. “At that moment,” Bartusiak says, “I was in love.”

In Archives of the Universe, Bartusiak—a visiting professor of science writing at MIT who has written about astrophysics for more than 20 years—has compiled more than 100 moments in scientific history that are likely to inspire a similar passion for astronomy. From Aristotle’s proof that the earth is a sphere, through Newton’s universal law of gravity, to the recent finding that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, Archives of the Universe is a comprehensive anthology of the most important astronomical discoveries of all time. Each discovery is recounted through excerpts from the scientific paper that first presented it, introduced by an interpretive essay ­in which Bartusiak not only explains the paper’s main concepts but also gracefully puts the discovery in its historical context. Though many of these discoveries are well known, the original papers often are not. Bartusiak’s ebullient prose and obvious enthusiasm make her an­thology a unique and accessible tour of the history of astronomy.

Bartusiak says that, after devoting her first three books to topics at the forefront of astronomical research, she welcomed the change in focus and pace offered by an anthology. “I’ve never had such fun with a book,” she says. “Each paper was its own little story, and every day I would just immerse myself in a whole new and completely different aspect of astronomy.”

Bartusiak crafted each essay as a complete, self-contained account of one particular moment in astronomical history. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the book reveals a striking evolution of style in scientific papers over the centuries. For example, “When Galileo is describing his findings about Jupiter or the Milky Way,” Bartusiak says, “he uses such vivid, lyrical language.” But as the writings get closer to the present day, she says, “the language suddenly gets more terse, more matter of fact, more factual,” to the point that, in recent decades, the only readable sections of scientific papers have often been their abstracts, their introductions, and their conclusions.

Bartusiak dedicated Archives of the Universe to the memory of her father, whom she calls “my first guide to the stars.” In this engaging anthology spanning centuries of astronomi­cal thought, Bartusiak provides us with her own memorable guide to the stars.

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We invite you to submit the names of recently published books and papers for this column.

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