Books that Rock. The five different ways of spelling his name are all his own, and so are the figures relating to conception, pregnancy, and birth, recorded in a horoscope which he cast for himself. The contrast between his carelessness about his name and his extreme precision about dates reflects, from the very outset, a mind to whom all ultimate reality, the essence of religion, of truth and beauty, was contained in the language of numbers. Certainly the catching, not to say gripping style. By now over half a century older than I was way back in , I perceive in addition certain things about this paragraph that I am fairly certain failed to strike me at the time at all. There is something fishy about that sweeping characterization.
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Books that Rock. The five different ways of spelling his name are all his own, and so are the figures relating to conception, pregnancy, and birth, recorded in a horoscope which he cast for himself. The contrast between his carelessness about his name and his extreme precision about dates reflects, from the very outset, a mind to whom all ultimate reality, the essence of religion, of truth and beauty, was contained in the language of numbers.
Certainly the catching, not to say gripping style. By now over half a century older than I was way back in , I perceive in addition certain things about this paragraph that I am fairly certain failed to strike me at the time at all.
There is something fishy about that sweeping characterization. More important is the following. More than that, it is the very reason why, although he certainly was a gifted novelist and a journalist with an extraordinarily wide interest and coverage, I came in due time to regard him as, at bottom, second-rate. All of which is to say that over the years I have become a good deal more critical about the first book on the history of science that I ever encountered and devoured than when I first read it in the best-selling Penguin edition of In other words, the book left a lasting imprint, and in what follows I shall give a few examples of how, and in what respects, it did.
But let me first outline what the book is about. The introductory Part hurries the reader in just over a hundred pages of potted history from Thales to Copernicus, after which the pace slackens considerably, only to be regained near the end, where a post-Galileo follow-up brings the story to Newton in just over ten pages, followed in its turn by a final conclusion, a bibliography, and numerous endnotes. Why the title?
What turned Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho, and Galileo, but Kepler above all, into of all things sleepwalkers? In part the title is meant to convey the idea that there is much more to the creative act than can be accounted for in a rationally reconstructible, linear sort of step-by-step account. How imaginative but now taken in the negative connotation of the word I did not care to find out. There is some solace here for us teachers — give a youngster a book with a pretty obviously untenable or at least way overdone message, and she or he may well prove capable, not only of picking up its saner aspects, but also of being inspired by that very message to the point of turning in due time toward more solid scholarship and more responsible grand visions.
Many more stylistic gems than the one I opened this piece with are strewn over the book, most often meant to express an at times quite striking psychological insight of a kind that betrays the novelist. People love to read about people, more in particular about special people, admirable people. People also like to read about science, as well as about history. We, historians of science, deal with all of this: with people; with special, often even admirable people; with science, and with its history — why, then, are we so habitually failing those numerous potential readers of ours who do harbor these quite legitimate needs?
If we do not at least once in our career write up our results in a way accessible beyond the profession, then others wiIl do it for us. Journalists in particular do it for us, and Arthur Koestler was by no means the worst journalist to give it a try, even if he himself was in addition guided by those other, more personally colored motives of his.
Definitely surpassing much then and now current work in broadly accessible history of science writing, Koestler had quite a good grasp of the literature.
The problem with his treatment is not so much a lack of scholarly underpinning at least as considered from the viewpoint of the late s when he wrote the book but rather the extent to which his preconceived views tended to disfigure too many of his historical interpretations.
Unlike Finocchiaro, Koestler is not taken in for a moment by the effort undertaken by the Inquisition in the aftermath of the trial to portray all previous events as leading up to the final condemnation. That may be so, and yet Koestler as a politically experienced man-of-the-world understood far better that diplomats are as a rule very astute at sniffing an atmosphere, an intellectual atmosphere definitely included.
Also, so I now find, this book is where I first encountered the very notion of The Scientific Revolution of the 17 th century, that has come to mark just about all my later writings. In his Retrying Galileo of , a most useful book overall, Finocchiaro has included a not particularly fair chapter on The Sleepwalkers. In quite another vein, Owen Gingerich made an ironic bow to Koestler.
Shells and Pebbles Interesting finds on the shores of the history of science. Home About this blog Want to write for us? Mailing list Meet the editors. Floris Cohen on February 15, 0 Comments. Floris Cohen.
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The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe
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Book review: The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler
It traces the history of Western cosmology from ancient Mesopotamia to Isaac Newton. He suggests that discoveries in science arise through a process akin to sleepwalking. Not that they arise by chance, but rather that scientists are neither fully aware of what guides their research, nor are they fully aware of the implications of what they discover. A central theme of the book is the changing relationship between faith and reason.
On Rereading Arthur Koestler’s Sleepwalkers
The Sleepwalkers is an enlightening history of astronomy from the Ancient Greeks to Newton. It particularly focuses on three characters who shifted scientific consensus from the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system to a heliocentric one: Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. And characters is the right word, because Koestler digs into their personal quirks and foibles with gusto. If he is to be believed, these three key scientists were all temperamental to the point of self-destructiveness. In doing so, he was inspired by Ancient Greek writings, and in particular references to the heliocentric system that Heraclides of Pontos and Aristarchus of Samos proposed in the 3rd century BC.