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The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's…

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959)

by Arthur Koestler

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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765518,047 (4.15)16



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It's a really good book about the history of scientific discovery, focusing on the ancient Greeks, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Highlights: Greek scientists had worked out a lot of stuff, but Plato and Aristotle sort of squashed that line of inquiry. Copernicus was possibly the most boring famous person in history, and generally seemed like a slacker. Also, we probably credit him with the beginnings of modern astronomy not because he was right about the Sun, but because his book was so unreadable that no one could figure out how wrong he was about the details. Kepler was a superstar, working out the tides, figuring out how telescopes worked, and realizing that planets travel in that most obscure and debased shape, the ellipse. He also had no idea what he'd be remembered for, and he was mostly interested in his totally wrong mystical ideas. He developed the inverse square relationship for optics, and rightly applied it to gravity, but then he totally forgot about it!?. Galileo was a big old douche canoe, and most of the myths about him are completely wrong. He was also wrong in his reasons as to why the earth moved around the sun, and wasted 25 years of his life on it. It was only after the Inquisition put him in his place that he did all his good work.
Koestler is possibly too lenient on the Catholic church throughout, but not egregiously so. There are a lot of eye openers and his writing is usually vivid and dynamic. I have a feeling that current historical scholarship could add a lot of detail and nuance to his story, but as it stands it's quite good.
4 stars oc ( )
  starcat | Aug 11, 2014 |
Read this for a graduate course in rationalism. I was particularly impressed by the section dedicated to Kepler, who, I am reminded, essentially wrote the first piece of science fiction waaaay back when.

In the middle of the all the gory religious persecution of medieval Europe, a guy figured out that the planets move in an elliptical, as opposed to a circular, orbit around the sun. Koestler takes the reader through the stages of Kepler's thinking, with a wink and a nod to the intuitions that would, at times, lift him above that thinking. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
Koestler's history of cosmology is filled with well-researched information bundled into a story so well told it reads like good fiction. Mostly it's a historical account of the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, but the early sections set the scene perfectly by describing the astonishing work of their predecessors like Ptolemy and Pythagoras.

Koestler provides plausible psychological analyses of the skywatchers as they painstakingly and erratically put their theories together with a foot in the past and one in the future, surrounded by chaos and intrigue and trying to hold their lives, families and minds together, often stumbling on to the truth by mistake, or forgetting or ignoring it.

Having read their works in the original, Koestler reveals jokes and theoretical nuances, and skewers much of the apocrypha that has contributed to the legends that surround these scientific giants. He also writes very well about the changing relationship between religion and science over the centuries.

All told, decades after publication this remains a breath of fresh air, and probably my favourite of the Koestler books I've read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in cosmology, maths, alchemy, the middle ages, or the history and philosophy of science or religion. ( )
5 vote stancarey | Jul 30, 2009 |
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Koestler, Arthurprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Butterfield, HerbertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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An extraordinary history of humanity's changing vision of the universe. In this masterly synthesis, Arthur Koestler cuts through the sterile distinction between 'sciences' and 'humanities' to bring to life the whole history of cosmology from the Babylonians to Newton. He shows how the tragic split between science and religion arose and how, in particular, the modern world-view replaced the medieval world-view in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. He also provides vivid and judicious pen-portraits of a string of great scientists and makes clear the role that political bias and unconscious prejudice played in their creativity.
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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