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Michael Hoskin

The construction of the heavens

The work of William Herschel was part of a watershed in the study of cosmology, where rather than being uniform and static, the universe began to be seen as subject to change and containing a heirarchy of structures. In The Construction of the Heavens: William Herschel's Cosmology Michael Hoskin tells of Herschel's contribution.

The book is in two parts, the first being Hoskin's description of Herschel's work and the second a collection of Herschel's papers. We find out about Herschel's calculations of the motion of the solar system with respect to nearby stars, but much of the book concerns the study of nebulae - investigations of whether they are truly nebulous material or are in fact collections of stars. Herschel often points out how a bigger telescope - paid for by the royal treasury - would help with this. Herschel also speculates about how such structures may condense more and more as time passes. We also see Herschel's methods of cataloguing the nebulae.

At first it seemed to me that the structure of this book meant it was aimed mostly at history of science students, but I think that it could have a wider readership (although the price tag might put a lot of people off). Herschel's work will be of interest to anyone interested in astronomy, and in particular amateur astronomers may find his papers of interest as they show the early observations of some well known astronomical objects.