The Sky's Dark Labyrinth

By Stuart Clark
In today’s technological world, we have incredible access to information. Want to find out what happened overnight in Afghanistan or how the stock market is doing or who won the game? Listen to the news on the television or radio, or turn on your computer. In seconds you will have information, often more than you really want. Although science reporting doesn’t get much space in the general press, information in all areas of science, including astronomy, is readily available on the internet. We can find out about new discoveries or see pictures of planets, stars, nebulae … at the touch of our fingers on the keyboard.
We take our daily exposure to news and information for granted. In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, Stuart Clark takes us back to a time when this was far from true. Information was precious; it was hard-fought and not always easily shared. He tells us the story of a few of the brilliant men to whom we should be grateful. Their drive to find out as much as they could about astronomy, led to the legacy of our understanding of some of its mysteries and to the vast amount of information that is within our reach.
In the early 17th century, people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun travelled around the earth to create day and night. This was the truth according to the church; this was how God had created the world and it was not something to be questioned.
But a few curious minds did question it. One of them was Galileo Galilei, Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and all-around science genius, whose “optical tube” (precursor to modern telescopes) allowed him to observe the night sky at 20 times the magnification of the naked eye. Another was the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose brilliance caught the attention of the colourful Tycho Brahe. Brahe invited Kepler to come and work with him in Prague where he had established an observatory that far outclassed anything currently in existence in its sophistication and precision. These men did not always agree about the interpretation of their observations, but they were unified in their goal: the pursuit of knowledge.
Their observations ultimately led them to question the accepted belief about the relative positions of the sun and the earth. This had serious repercussions both scientifically and personally. It went against everything that they’d been taught and although they were men of science, they were also men of faith, and questioning the teachings of the church was not insignificant for them.
Reading this book will fill you with awe at the magnitude of what these men accomplished. We must remember that they had to find their own way to pay for their pursuits. They either supported themselves with other work (Kepler was apparently quite adept at drawing astrological charts!) or somehow found a sponsor to help fund their efforts. Not only was it sometimes at great expense or hardship to themselves and their family, but it was also dangerous. Heresy was a very serious crime and being in conflict with the church was not to be taken lightly.
Clark brings these men to life with great vibrancy and detail. We are witness to their frustrations, their curiosity and imagination, and their painstaking, meticulous work, as well as their foibles and eccentricities. We sympathise with Kepler (and his wife) having to live a life without much luxury, for the sake of astronomy. We share Galileo’s astonishment and satisfaction at being able to see so much more in the sky, including the moons of Jupiter, with his optical tube. And we are captivated with Tycho Brahe’s eccentricities (elk for dinner? But not to eat!) and his willingness to fund a whole band of merry astronomers, diligently making observations and taking measurements late into the night every night without fail, despite some wild partying!
Probably most of us have a rudimentary knowledge of the history of this time, and the turmoil that these theories caused but Clark opens our eyes to some of the intrigue that might have gone on behind the scenes. Although we have a pretty good idea of how it all turns out, there is quite a bit of tension and suspense in this fascinating story, and despite ourselves we keep hoping that Galileo will escape the clutches of the Inquisition. Clark’s exposition of the men in the midst of this time of upheaval leaves us wanting more. Luckily for us, this is just the first in a trilogy about the mysteries of astronomy and the important players in its discoveries.
The epigraph in this first book is from Kepler: “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself.” Clark’s books will help us travel along that road.

Thank you to Polygon, McArthur, Ruth Seeley and the author for providing a review copy of The Sky's Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark
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