Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos

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9780716737117: Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos

In the dramatic tradition of the best-selling Longitude, Parallax charts the historical path of observational astronomy’s most daunting challenge: measuring the distance to a star.

The greatest scientific minds applied themselves in vain to the problem across the millennia, beginning with the ancient Greeks. Not until the nineteenth century would three astronomers, armed with the best telescopes of the age, race to conquer this astronomical Everest—their contest ending in a virtual dead heat.

Against a sweeping backdrop filled with kidnappings, dramatic rescue, swordplay, madness, and bitter rivalry, Alan Hirshfeld brings to life the heroes of this remarkable story. Meet the destitute boy plucked from a collapsed building who becomes the greatest telescope maker the world has ever seen; the hot-tempered Dane whose nose is lopped off in a duel over mathematics; the merchant’s apprentice forced to choose between the lure of money and his passion for astronomy; and the musician who astounds the world by discovering a new planet from his own backyard.

Generously illustrated with diagrams, period engravings, and paintings, Parallax is an unforgettable tale that illuminates the distinctly human side of science.

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From the Inside Flap:

“Alan Hirshfeld's PARALLAX succinctly tells one of the great stories of scientific history in an exciting and readable manner. Written in the genre of Dava Sobel's Longitude, Hirshfeld sheds light on the important problem of finding our cosmic place.” — David H. Levy, Science Editor, Parade, and discoverer of 21 comets

“For 2000 years, astronomers knew how to measure the distance to the stars but couldn't quite pull it off. The stars, of course, turned out to be frustratingly far away. Alan Hirshfeld's authoritative and gripping tale of the search for stellar parallax makes me proud to a part of such a relentlessly curious and persistent species.” — Chet Raymo, columnist, Boston Globe, and author of 365 STARRY NIGHTS

“In this thrilling history of the search for parallax, Hirshfeld urges us to "fly together." We are carried along on a wave of excitement from the first wild notion of Aristarchus in the third century B.C. to the final triumph of Friedrich Bessel in 1838. Hirshfeld's own awe and delight in his stories of discovery are captivating and often personal—"Join me as I cut through my neighbor's yard...and set up my telescope." The human failures and frustrations and the crucial discoveries in the quest for parallax are as thrilling as the story of the determination of longitude, and just as important.” — Jane Langton , author of two astronomical mystery novels, DARK NANTUCKET NOON and THE SHORTEST DAY.

“With this highly readable and cosmically accessible book, Alan Hirshfeld has done for the measurement of the cosmos what Dava Sobel did for the measurement of longitude. Now that our ships are plying the heavens as they once did the seas, the story of how we came to calculate cosmic distances looms large on our historical horizon. There is nothing grander than the universe, and Hirshfeld is to be commended for bringing it down to size for us all to see. Readers will never again look into the night sky the same way.” — Michael Shermer, Publisher, Skeptic magazine, author of WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS and HOW WE BELIEVE: THE SEARCH FOR GOD IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE

“I thoroughly enjoyed reading this excellent book. It is an admirable account, and I’m sure it will be of great value to many readers.” — Patrick Moore, host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night

“How large is the starry universe? Alan Hirshfeld's engaging account first introduces the long and challenging search to plumb the distances to the stars, and then his narrative moves to a satisfying climax as the exciting race to find stellar parallax heats up. It's a thrilling detective story!” — Owen Gingerich, Research Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

“PARALLAX is a fascinating celestial detective story, written in a beautifully lucid, engaging style.” — Dorrit Hoffleit, Senior Research Astronomer, Yale University

"PARALLAX, like Dava Sobel's LONGITUDE, is a wonderfully told story of the challenge of measuring our place in the universe. It reaches the stars and the ride is exciting and irresistible." — Margaret J. Geller, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

About the Author:

Alan W. Hirshfeld, astronomer at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an Associate of the Harvard College Observatory, received his undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Princeton and his Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale. He is co-author of Sky Catalogue 2000.0, a two-volume astronomical reference book, and a past winner of a Griffith Observatory/Hughes Aircraft Co. national science writing award. He lives outside Boston.

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