A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters) – Giles Sparrow

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences and remains supposedly available to all were it not for the bright lights of the cities which shutter the iris to the wonders above, and perhaps that is why there is a tendency to take for granted that we have solved the mysteries of the stars, that having now detected gravity waves and imaged a black hole that the identification of dark matter and energy is all that there is left to do before closing the book.

Those two missing pieces of the cosmological puzzle are not insignificant, linked challenges that we have only begun to undertake within the last decades, and that casual dismissal also ignores the not-insubstantial body of existing knowledge which has been discovered and understood in the first place, all of it without ever having come closer to any star other than our own Sun.

A process of long-distance and long-term observation and analysis which has given rise to suppositions and theories, some overturned, others linking with other branches of science in a positive feedback loop, some given weight by computer simulations whose predictions have only been confirmed ex post facto by experimental evidence, it is this story which is told by Giles Sparrow in A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters).

The twenty four chapters an adventurous step-by-step tour of some of the more interesting or notable sights of the night sky, some nearby or highly visible and others requiring simple equipment, patience or favourable weather, only the most exotic are the province of those with access to professional resources, and each stop is educational.

From Polaris, Aldebaran and Mizar through to variable Algol, red giant Mira and black hole Cygnus X-1, along with the three imposters once mistaken for stars, globular cluster Omega Centauri, the Andromeda Nebula and quasar 3C 273, each nominated celestial body is representative of a vastly larger number of similar stars of the same class, and Sparrow’s explanations of their behaviour grow from the insights of the previous chapters.

Beyond its title, A History of the Universe in 21 Stars is as much a chronicle of our knowledge and understanding of the universe, the observations of the stars illuminating the intrinsic properties of them and their brethren and sometimes by extension the hidden objects to which they are gravitationally bound, companion stars such as white or brown dwarfs or even exoplanets, once elusive and now a burgeoning field of great fecundity.

Observational astronomy the province of all for most of history, the names of many individuals who participated in antiquity are lost to time but it has been and remains a global endeavour, if not a consciously united one, and that is reflected in the diverse roster whose names have been recorded for their specific contributions from Ptolemy onwards, men and women of many nations and backgrounds, many of whose principal employment was elsewhere, amateurs who simply had an interest in the stars and a handy telescope.

Sparrow’s conversational style belying the sheer volume of information imparted, care is taken to articulate the phenomenon of the moment though occasionally he overpresumes understanding, and with the manuscript completed in lockdown the information is as up-to-date as can be though contains more than a few typos, but for those looking for a personal introduction to the clear winter skies through the months of isolation it is a valuable companion.

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters) is available now from Welbeck