General Reading Suggestions


The ancient astronomical tradition is one of impressive duration and richness – from planet observations by the Babylonians in the second millennium BC to the astronomical revolution of the sixteenth century. Two questions constantly recur: what evidence permits us to reconstruct the astronomy of the ancient past? How was astronomy actually practiced? Tracing ideas from ancient Babylon to sixteenth-century Europe, the course places its greatest emphasis on the Greek period, when astronomers developed the geometric and philosophical ideas that have determined the subsequent character of Western astronomy. The course approaches this history through the concrete details of ancient astronomical practice. The course provides a critical look at the evidence used to reconstruct ancient astronomy, includes excerpts from ancient texts, and discusses the role of astronomy in the various cultures. Accessible to a wide audience, this course will appeal to anyone interested in how our understanding of our place in the universe has changed and developed, from ancient times through the Renaissance.


The lectures will be completely self-contained and will assume no prior knowledge or reading beyond elementary mathematics. However, people who enjoy the course might also enjoy any of the following books.


The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans. Oxford University Press (1998). Although the title and description of the course is shamelessly borrowed from this book (and yes, the author is a friend of mine), I won’t have time to cover anywhere near all of the book, and so the lectures only loosely follow the book. Nevertheless, the book is a wonderful presentation of the subject, and is the closest you will find to a beautiful coffee-table style book on this subject. About $59 new, $38 used from


The Exact Sciences in Antiquity by Otto Neugebauer. Dover Publications (1969). An absolute classic set of lectures given to non-experts in the mid-1950’s by the greatest master of this material in the 20th century. A real delight to read by anyone at any level. About $12 from


A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler by J. L. E. Dreyer. Dover Publications (1953). A modern reprint of a classic from the late 19th century, written by a real astronomer who was also able to read the original Greek and Arabic sources. Still a great overview of the subject. About $12 from


Theories of the World from Antiquity to the Copernican Revolution by Michael J. Crowe. Dover Publications (2001). A fairly short book from a now-retired professor at Notre Dame, who taught a course of the same title for many years. A very thoughtful look at the transition to Copernicus’ worldview. About $12 from


Ptolemy’s Almagest translated by G. J. Toomer. Princeton University Press (1998). A masterful English translation, with excellent annotation, of one of the most influential books of all times. One of the principal goals of the course is to explain how and why all the scientific knowledge in this book was developed, and how and why the book dominated western civilization for nearly 1500 years. About $53 new, $30 used from


Britannica Great Books of the Western World (The Almagest, On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy: IV and V. The Harmonies of the World: V, Volume 16), translated by R. Catesby Taliaferro. Part of the famous Great Books series from the 1950’s, the academic purists tend to sneer at this edition of the Almagest, but for many purposes it is still useful, and probably easy to find used and cheap. Taliaferro’s translation is often literally what Ptolemy wrote, and he includes almost no helpful commentary, in sharp contrast to Toomer. But with Toomer, you occasionally have to be careful to distinguish what he implies is factual when it is really just his opinion.


The books by Thomas L. Heath, all in Dover paperback editions:

Greek Astronomy. Superb scholarly study documents extraordinary contributions of Pythagoras, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Anaxagoras, many other thinkers in laying the foundations of scientific astronomy. Essential reading for scholars and students of astronomy and the history of science. Accessible to the science-minded layman. About $10 from

Aristarchus of Samos. This classic work traces Aristarchus of Samos's anticipation by two millennia of Copernicus's revolutionary theory of the orbital motion of the earth. Heath's history of astronomy ranges from Homer and Hesiod to Aristarchus and includes quotes from numerous thinkers, compilers, and scholasticists from Thales and Anaximander through Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Heraclides. web stats scriptAbout $18 from

The Works of Archimedes. The complete works of antiquity's great geometer appear here in a highly accessible English translation by a distinguished scholar. Remarkable for his range of thought and his mastery of treatment, Archimedes addressed such topics as the famous problems of the ratio of the areas of a cylinder and an inscribed sphere; the measurement of a circle; the properties of conoids, spheroids, and spirals; and the quadrature of the parabola. This edition offers an informative introduction with many valuable insights into the ancient mathematician's life and thought as well as the views of his contemporaries. Modern mathematicians, physicists, science historians, and logicians will find this volume a source of timeless fascination. web stats scriptAbout $18 from

The Forgotten Revolution: How Science was Born in 300 B.C. and Why it Had to Be Reborn, by Lucio Russo and Silvio Levy (translator). The third and second centuries BC witnessed, in the Greek world, a scientific and technological explosion. Greek culture had reached great heights in art, literature and philosophy already in the earlier classical era, but it was in the age of Archimedes and Euclid that science as we know it was born, and gave rise to sophisticated technology that would not be seen again until the 18th century. This scientific revolution was also accompanied by great changes and a new kind of awareness in many other fields, including art and medicine. What were the landmarks in the meteoric rise of science 2300 years ago? Why are they so little known today, even among scientists, classicists and historians? How do they relate to the post-1500 science that we are familiar with from school? What led to the end of ancient science? These are the questions that this book discusses, in the belief that the answers bear on choices we face today. About $32 from