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The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars

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An historically unprecedented disconnect between humanity and the heavens has opened. Jo Marchant's book can begin to heal it. For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are--our art, religious beliefs, social status, scie An historically unprecedented disconnect between humanity and the heavens has opened. Jo Marchant's book can begin to heal it. For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are--our art, religious beliefs, social status, scientific advances, and even our biology. But over the last few centuries we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. It's a disconnect with a dire cost. Our relationship to the stars and planets has moved from one of awe, wonder and superstition to one where technology is king--the cosmos is now explored through data on our screens, not by the naked eye observing the natural world. Indeed, in most countries modern light pollution obscures much of the night sky from view. Jo Marchant's spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see--looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. The cosmos is the source of our greatest creativity in art, in science, in life. To show us how, Jo Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, and to the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at New Grange in England. We discover Chumash cosmology and visit medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars. We discover how light reveals the chemical composition of the sun, and we are with Einstein as he works out that space and time are one and the same. A four-billion-year-old meteor inspires a search for extraterrestrial life. The cosmically liberating, summary revelation is that star-gazing made us human.


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An historically unprecedented disconnect between humanity and the heavens has opened. Jo Marchant's book can begin to heal it. For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are--our art, religious beliefs, social status, scie An historically unprecedented disconnect between humanity and the heavens has opened. Jo Marchant's book can begin to heal it. For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are--our art, religious beliefs, social status, scientific advances, and even our biology. But over the last few centuries we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. It's a disconnect with a dire cost. Our relationship to the stars and planets has moved from one of awe, wonder and superstition to one where technology is king--the cosmos is now explored through data on our screens, not by the naked eye observing the natural world. Indeed, in most countries modern light pollution obscures much of the night sky from view. Jo Marchant's spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see--looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. The cosmos is the source of our greatest creativity in art, in science, in life. To show us how, Jo Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, and to the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at New Grange in England. We discover Chumash cosmology and visit medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars. We discover how light reveals the chemical composition of the sun, and we are with Einstein as he works out that space and time are one and the same. A four-billion-year-old meteor inspires a search for extraterrestrial life. The cosmically liberating, summary revelation is that star-gazing made us human.

30 review for The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars

  1. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    Looking back over the history of our relationship with the cosmos shows how we’ve banished gods, debunked myths and written our own, evidence-based, creation story. Stripping out subjective meaning and focusing on quantifiable observations has given us an epic power to understand and shape the world that dwarfs anything that has gone before. But unchecked, it has the potential to be a cold, narcissistic, destructive force. This is a book about how we closed our eyes to the stars. The challeng Looking back over the history of our relationship with the cosmos shows how we’ve banished gods, debunked myths and written our own, evidence-based, creation story. Stripping out subjective meaning and focusing on quantifiable observations has given us an epic power to understand and shape the world that dwarfs anything that has gone before. But unchecked, it has the potential to be a cold, narcissistic, destructive force. This is a book about how we closed our eyes to the stars. The challenge now is to open them again. The Human Cosmos is an overview of humanity’s relationship with the night sky — from groupings of dots in the cave paintings at Lascaux that can be interpreted as constellations to the awe-filled experiences of astronauts at the International Space Station as they perform their first spacewalks — and in an incredibly wide-ranging and consistently fascinating variety of historical anecdotes, author Jo Marchant makes a solid case that the more we have relegated the study of the stars to scientists alone, the more we have lost something of what made us human in the first place. I loved every bit of this. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.) When scientists first split light with the spectroscope — turning its colors into numbers — they took one more step away from a subjective, qualitative view of the cosmos toward an objective, mathematical one: from an internal universe that we experience, to an external one that we calculate. And with the development of electronic detectors, our sense of vision — how the cosmos looks to us — was finally erased from the picture altogether. In this sense, modern astronomy is radically different from any kind of cosmological inquiry or understanding that has gone before. It no longer requires us to turn our faces to the sky. Our dominant source of knowledge about the universe — what it is, how it was made, how it relates to our life, and to us — is now our instruments, and not our eyes. Marchant starts right at our beginning — with cave paintings and the construction of Stonehenge and the rise and fall of Babylonian kings — tracing how studying the stars led to superstitions and the divine rights of monarchs, and eventually, monotheism. In every section (with chapter headings such as Myth, Land, Faith, and Fate), she tells simply fascinating stories that explore humanity’s evolving relationship with the cosmos — and it would seem that everything (in the West) suddenly changed with Isaac Newton: with gravity proven as the fundamental force of nature, there was suddenly less need for divine intervention in ordering human affairs (Thomas Paine would eventually use the language of Newton to demand the equality of men as a “Natural Law” that led to the overthrow of kings; his subsequent release of Age of Reason would ultimately lead to the death of God; from that point on, the Milky Way could coldly spiral and the universe blindly expand with or without humanity). The new Rationalism and Positivism insisted on scientific facts as the only markers of reality, but eventually, Einstein and Quantum Mechanics and collapsing wave functions came to suggest that “reality” can never be measured separately from human consciousness. And while we have come such a long way from sacrificing to the sun gods to ensure another dawn, recent studies have shown that we are more in communion with the stars than we might suspect: Doctors are realizing that most medical conditions display daily fluctuations in their occurrence or symptoms, including heart attacks, asthma, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, strokes, fever, pain, seizures and suicide, to name just a few. The time of day can determine how we’ll respond to an infection or drug, or whether eating exactly the same meal will cause us to gain or lose weight. And even seasonal changes are important: the month in which babies are born affects their later risk of diseases such as dementia, multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia ( with opposite patterns in the northern and southern hemispheres). Scientists don’t understand exactly why (theories include early-life infection risk, nutrition, and vitamin D levels) but it’s clear that the position of the Earth relative to the Sun at the time you are born has health consequences that last for life. (In 1954, an American Biologist named Frank Brown tried to publish his findings that clams will continue to be affected by tides — even correcting for local conditions — when moved inland and shielded from environmental clues. Brown knew that they were responding to electromagnetic cues from the sun and moon, but the idea was too outside the mainstream to be published or discussed at conferences — which I include as a curiosity when thinking about “scientific consensus”.) The Human Cosmos was full of so many interesting stories, I’ll just collect a few here: I had heard of Constantine’s celestial vision of a cross that led to his subsequent conversion and promotion of Christianity, but I never heard before that he never stopped his pagan sun worship, or that Constantine simply merged the two traditions in order to hedge his bets (which is why we hear that Christian holidays are co-opted pagan festivals) and this is where the Christian halo came from (“Thanks to Constantine, the humble teacher became a cosmic emperor, ruling over the universe with the radiance of the sun.”) When an assistant curator of the British Museum, George Smith, translated a section of The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872 and realised that it was an alternate version of Noah and the Flood — written centuries before Genesis — “he reportedly became so excited that he started taking off his clothes”. Polynesian navigators who worked with Captain Cook in the Eighteenth Century were so in tune with subtle markers on the ocean — from the positions of the sun and moon to tidal swells, wind direction, and cloud formations — that if fog obscured the direction of waves approaching one’s canoe, “he stood with legs apart to feel the swell patterns using the swing of his testicles”. And I don’t know why it hasn’t made a more lasting impression on my memory that it was only in 1995 that astronomers discovered 51 Pegasus b — the first planet definitively identified outside of our own solar system; it has only been since 1995 that science has even contemplated the possibility of life on other planets because until then, they couldn't prove there were other planets. I love that Marchant brings our relationship with the cosmos full circle: early humans were obviously filled with awe when they looked at the night sky and endeavored to understand its workings. This led to superstitions and pseudoscience, civilisation and religion, and eventually, the Scientific Method and its efforts to erase mystery. Today, when light pollution and traffic jams of satellites obscure most people’s vision of the heavens, we’re beginning to realise that perhaps we’re more connected to those celestial bodies than mathematical equations alone can explain (I was fascinated by her explanation of Panpsychism), and I’m left wondering how close we are to affordable space tourism and a return to widespread awe at the sight of the depthless cosmos. I will admit that this perfectly piqued my own quirky interests — Marchant even references Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (an investigation into the use of psychedelics to prompt an awe-filled experience, which I loved) — so while this may not have wide appeal, I found it to be an engaging and informative read.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Natalie (CuriousReader)

    The space-themed books of 2020 continues. Jo Marchant’s The Human Cosmos looks in a wider sense at human’s connection with what is ‘out there’ both from a historical point of view (how this relationship has evolved over time) as well as the multi-disciplinary effect the connection has had. Marchant sets out to explore how humans viewing off, studying, wondering and marvelling at the stars and space has influenced our lives; ranging from politics, time keeping, technological innovations, ideas of The space-themed books of 2020 continues. Jo Marchant’s The Human Cosmos looks in a wider sense at human’s connection with what is ‘out there’ both from a historical point of view (how this relationship has evolved over time) as well as the multi-disciplinary effect the connection has had. Marchant sets out to explore how humans viewing off, studying, wondering and marvelling at the stars and space has influenced our lives; ranging from politics, time keeping, technological innovations, ideas of alien species, art creations, and beyond. She asks in a sense how our relationship to the stars has taken form in various domains, what it tells us about human history and where we are going. Full Review: https://curiousreaderr.wordpress.com/...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tanja Berg

    This started off great, showing how humanity has evolved while gazing at the stars. How we have navigated by stars and developed society and religion, partly by looking at the sky. Great. I also agree that something has been lost with light pollution and while staring at mobile screens. However, the book descends into pan psychic mumbo-jumbo that is unappealing and unscientific. I love looking at the night sky. I am often out in the dark and I will turn of my light, and stare at the milky way. T This started off great, showing how humanity has evolved while gazing at the stars. How we have navigated by stars and developed society and religion, partly by looking at the sky. Great. I also agree that something has been lost with light pollution and while staring at mobile screens. However, the book descends into pan psychic mumbo-jumbo that is unappealing and unscientific. I love looking at the night sky. I am often out in the dark and I will turn of my light, and stare at the milky way. This is a spectacle I feel deeply grateful for, it didn't use to be something I could partake in on a regular basis. Mostly because of light pollution. I live outside the worst of it now. I have vetoed lights around the house. I remember a course, done out in the woods, and lying on the grass after dinner looking at the stars. They seemed like they were dangling half way down to earth, and the dreamy, white Milky Way that I had not seen since I was a child, splashed across the sky. It's a transcendent experience and maybe even an evolutionary need. However, you do not need to be deeply spiritual otherwise to enjoy this, like the author tries to tell.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    For all of Man’s time on Earth, the skies have played an outsized role. In a remarkable and engrossing book called The Human Cosmos, Jo Tarant has gathered evidence from all of history and before, demonstrating the deep penetration and influence of the cosmos on the way Man thinks, behaves, and believes. The result is a literary journey unlike any other I have read. It is so varied and yet so deep, it makes the reader want to plow into each subject she tackles even more. Whether it’s archaeology For all of Man’s time on Earth, the skies have played an outsized role. In a remarkable and engrossing book called The Human Cosmos, Jo Tarant has gathered evidence from all of history and before, demonstrating the deep penetration and influence of the cosmos on the way Man thinks, behaves, and believes. The result is a literary journey unlike any other I have read. It is so varied and yet so deep, it makes the reader want to plow into each subject she tackles even more. Whether it’s archaeology, paleontology, space travel or the invention of timekeeping, Tarant has a story to tell, and it’s always a stunning one, complete with citations, side trips and other perspectives. Including her own. Many of the chapters manage to bloom around a central character. In Art, it is Kandinsky. In Power, it is Tom Paine. Paine, for example was a poor failure of an Englishman who gambled his last pennies on a one-way trip to the American Colonies (on Ben Franklin’s recommendation). When he arrived, he was at death’s door. He survived, and this self-trained corset-maker became the world’s most popular author, and not just once. His influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can be seen loud and clear. Similarly, Tarant frames chapters on the lives of inventors, academics and theorists who changed the knowledge base, or created a new discipline, or failed miserably in the effort. It’s a very human interest kind of book for one with such a literally lofty title. Tarant divides her chapters into values, 12 of them. Each one takes a common aspect of human lives and humanity itself, and demonstrates with fascinating stories, theories and citations how the heavens have lit the way. They have simple one-word titles like Oceans, Faith and Mind, that allow her to gather a wealth of facts and present them as cohesive narratives. Each one is a standalone adventure, hooked to the stars. For Tarant, this extends to all living things, like proving that birds navigate by the Earth’s magnetic field, that dung beetles navigate by moonlight, and that butterflies navigate by the sun. Plants clearly rely on the sun for all they do. She begins with the caves of Lascaux in France, where some kids discovered great halls of wall and ceiling paintings, peppered with star groups of the Pleiades and constellations as they then were and as men saw them. Prehistoric Man already had a sophisticated appreciation of the sun, moon and stars. It is not a far trip to seeing and understanding the positioning of massive mounds in Ireland, Solstice clocks like Stonehenge, and how up to date the Ancient Greeks were in their understanding of how the world fit into the universe. Even the pyramids were aimed accurately and precisely due north. Man has always been about leveraging position using the heavens. In Babylonia 3000 years ago, they were already mapping eclipses and recording moon and star movements for predictive purposes. In fact, the emperor was a knowledge junkie who collected clay tablets with everything that everyone knew from the entire known world. They survived because the fire that destroyed their capital, Nineveh, baked them into lasting for three thousand years until Nineveh was rediscovered and excavated, just in our lifetimes. In Ancient Greece, they had pretty much figured it all out, calculating that the Earth must be round. In Rome, the Emperor Constantine, despite converting to Christianity and forcing his empire to as well, nonetheless put the sun on his coins and classified himself as the Sun Emperor. Tarant dallies in the Constantine era to show how the stars made their way into Christianity. Christmas was chosen for the rather pagan date when the sun begins its track north again, four days after the winter solstice. Nothing whatever to do with the birth of Jesus, who was more likely to have been born in March. Easter, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, was a play to co-opt every other religion of the time, the sun-focused, the moon-focused as well as the Christians. Actual historical events played no role. Christianity was in competition for the hearts and souls of all, and the others had long-established winter and spring festivals. So Christianity had to exploit them too. Yahweh long predates modern Judaism. He was already a God, but he had a wife, Asherah, and an active role among numerous Gods the Israelites worshipped. Some scholars cite Yahweh as a Sun God. After the Babylonians destroyed the Jewish kingdom in 586 BC, the religion started up again in 538 BC, this time with the help of the invading Persians. The new, updated Jewish religion combined the old stories with Zoroastrian influences from the Persians, who assisted in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But most importantly, this time it was with just one God, Yahweh, who could not be seen or even described. It was the greatest innovation in the history of religion, and changed the course of Western everything. Five hundred years earlier, Babylonian astronomers were so busy with the stars that they divided up the sky into 12 equal sections, each one named for something easy to remember, like the constellations Aquarius or Gemini, solidifying the images the stars inspired. It was purely a housekeeping effort, so that astronomers could narrow the areas they were talking about and pointing to. But it soon went completely off the rails as people demanded to know how the position of the stars would affect their very being. So they made up great stories and attributed them to the planets and the constellations. It became big business. Even Galileo did horoscopes as a sideline. At each stage, Tarant colors in the details with great stories of stumbling discoveries, unintended consequences, dramatic failure, and world-changing success. And everything is connected to our fascination with the stars. It quickly becomes remarkable as to just how pervasive this has been. There is a great chapter on the oceans and how Man navigated using the sun and the moon, but particularly the stars. The Polynesians navigated completely differently from the Europeans, learning the whole Pacific Ocean and guiding themselves with stunning accuracy by the positions of stars, particularly at dusk as they first became visible. Captain Cook, the featured biography in the chapter, spent his time messing with sextants and trying to map the islands he visited, all with less accuracy and success than the natives, armed with nothing at all. The invention of time is obviously a complex function of sun and moon, and the implications for recognizing time of day and time of year are world-changing events and trends. This also manages to circle back into religion, as the Egyptians, long before the Christians, already appreciated death and resurrection. Their Sun God, Ra, died every evening and was resurrected every morning. Moving up to the present, Tarant describes the starry contributions of physics and quantum mechanics, and our latest fixation, space travel. Space has changed a number of astronauts for life, and not just because of time-shifting or weightlessness. When they get their first total view of the universe or the planet Earth, they are awestruck. A number of them have tried to explain how it has changed their lives. It has left them humbled. They sign their names smaller. They have a far keener appreciation of ecology and pollution. And of what really matters. As Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell put it: “From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck, drag him a quarter of a million miles out, and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” The business of awe is something that changes people for the better. It calms them, takes away anxiety and depression, and puts everything in perspective. It makes them feel secure and part of something much larger and special. But you can’t do that on television; you have to experience it directly and be overwhelmed by nature. Between tv, computers and smartphones, there just isn’t enough awe going around, which Tarant says contributes to the state of Man today: tense, anxious, fearful and depressed. Tarant says we have lost our connection to the stars along with the inspiration they provide. GPS has replaced even printed maps. There is no challenge, no adventure any more. Everything is onscreen, a very limited view of the universe of infinite things. Light pollution has long eliminated easy views of the Milky Way, leaving most people with only handful of the brightest stars in the sky. For many in the Far East, pollution permanently clouds the skies so they don’t even see that it is a lovely blue. We have abandoned our bearings in favor of a dirty technological substitute, she says. Ultimately, the book is about losing the connection. For as long as there have been humans, they have looked to the skies for inspiration, support, pleasure and satisfaction. Now suddenly, in the latest speck of time, say 100 years, Man has separated from the skies. Just as he has separated himself from the ecological system, he is well into denying the influence of the stars. And he is far less contented for it. David Wineberg

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    Mind Blowing! What a wonderful read and was excited to learn so much more about the cosmos than I did before. There were a small number of names, dates, inventions, discoveries I knew about from watching Discovery Channel, Science & History channels, National Geography books and TV shows, but there was so much more I did not know. I thought the placement of the chapters was excellent as they flowed into each other with ease and simplicity. And, now I know where the Barenaked Ladies got the idea fo Mind Blowing! What a wonderful read and was excited to learn so much more about the cosmos than I did before. There were a small number of names, dates, inventions, discoveries I knew about from watching Discovery Channel, Science & History channels, National Geography books and TV shows, but there was so much more I did not know. I thought the placement of the chapters was excellent as they flowed into each other with ease and simplicity. And, now I know where the Barenaked Ladies got the idea for the theme song to TV's The Big Bang Theory and some of the story lines and names of the various scientists used in the show. A book way outside my comfort zone, but a GR friend had read it and had a good review, and am glad I took a chance on the book and read it. If you like science related books, this is for you!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    "A[n]... account of our enduring and ever-changing relationship to the cosmos," "Vast in scope and meticulously researched... traces humanity's enduring relationship with our physical and cultural ancestors: the stars." Emphases mine to call attention to this bullshit—inclusive, this book is not. I may be (hypocritically) reflecting my own cultural biases by illuminating Marchant's, but nevertheless... it is so frustrating to see South and East Asia almost completely effaced from Marchant's alle "A[n]... account of our enduring and ever-changing relationship to the cosmos," "Vast in scope and meticulously researched... traces humanity's enduring relationship with our physical and cultural ancestors: the stars." Emphases mine to call attention to this bullshit—inclusive, this book is not. I may be (hypocritically) reflecting my own cultural biases by illuminating Marchant's, but nevertheless... it is so frustrating to see South and East Asia almost completely effaced from Marchant's allegedly comprehensive account of the relationship between Man and the heavens beyond a cursory footnote here and there; any consideration of Asia in Human Cosmos is myopically confined to merely the Near East—and even then, often eventually connected to Greece and Rome, i.e. holding Europe as reference point once again, rehearsing the whole drama of Asia orbiting (pun intended) around Europe. Anyone with so much as a rudimentary awareness of Asian history would know just how much imperial China, with the royals of literally every dynasty sponsoring a whole bureau of court astronomers and mathematicians, deferred to and valued astronomy to the high heavens (pun intended), a cultism mirrored in other kingdoms and empires in the Sinosphere from Japan to Korea, so this wanton erasure of Asia is simply indefensible. Elsewhere, South America's veritable and long-lived engagement with astronomy is likewise eclipsed (pun intended) by White People and their Lives and Intellect save for a two-page honorary/obligatory mention of the Mayan Empire. Even leaving this Eurocentric blindness and bias aside, the architecture of the book itself is wanting and haphazard: organizing content by way of tropes and themes (Fate, Faith, etc.) is innovative but it becomes wearisome fast. One can't help but feel that the treasure trove of material Marchant admittedly offers—despite its unjustifiable and offensive lapses—can be structured much more meaningfully and carefully.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Zosia

    This just isn’t a successful book for me. It has no through line - every chapter is a wildly different subject that she streeeeeches to fit into her topic (the cosmos). Much of it is interesting but none of it gels. I reserve anything below a 3 for books that personally offend me and this one didn’t, so it gets a 3. But. It was just a loose collection of thoughts that would’ve been better blog posts and often the disorganization made things drag. HOWEVER, I did like the central idea she pulled t This just isn’t a successful book for me. It has no through line - every chapter is a wildly different subject that she streeeeeches to fit into her topic (the cosmos). Much of it is interesting but none of it gels. I reserve anything below a 3 for books that personally offend me and this one didn’t, so it gets a 3. But. It was just a loose collection of thoughts that would’ve been better blog posts and often the disorganization made things drag. HOWEVER, I did like the central idea she pulled together at the end: science is most things but not everything. Our ancestors got information and awe from looking directly at the sky - not with instruments - but with their own eyes. It made me want to look at the sky more and pay attention to how often I rely on devices for info when I could use my senses instead. 🌠

  8. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Young

    Cool introduction to a lot of history and philosophy of science concepts. Marchant uses humankind’s relationship with the cosmos as a neat vehicle to explore how we know what we know, covering topics like the beginnings of mathematics and measurement, the shift from humanism to enlightenment thinking and the interplay between our sense of self versus an infinite indifferent universe. The socio-political factors that contribute to society’s acceptance of different ways of understanding the univer Cool introduction to a lot of history and philosophy of science concepts. Marchant uses humankind’s relationship with the cosmos as a neat vehicle to explore how we know what we know, covering topics like the beginnings of mathematics and measurement, the shift from humanism to enlightenment thinking and the interplay between our sense of self versus an infinite indifferent universe. The socio-political factors that contribute to society’s acceptance of different ways of understanding the universe and how scientific paradigm shifts come about are very nicely explained. She picks a few interesting, less well known characters from the annals of scientific progress for in-depth biographies. I’m not such a fan of the more speculative tone of the chapters towards the end of the book (on the search for extra terrestrial life, and mind and consciousness).

  9. 4 out of 5

    Caroline Middleton

    This ambitious cultural study of humanity's connection with the celestial landscape is an astronomical treat! Marchant's passion for the stars is clear, her ability to connect disparate anecdotes from history - much like a constellation - and formulate them into insightful, utterly original arguments is what makes this book such a success. My favourite chapters were Time and Power - how the lunar and solar cycles were reconciled into a multitude of different calendars, how clepsydras (water clock This ambitious cultural study of humanity's connection with the celestial landscape is an astronomical treat! Marchant's passion for the stars is clear, her ability to connect disparate anecdotes from history - much like a constellation - and formulate them into insightful, utterly original arguments is what makes this book such a success. My favourite chapters were Time and Power - how the lunar and solar cycles were reconciled into a multitude of different calendars, how clepsydras (water clocks) and hourglasses were replaced with mechanical clockwork we recognise today, shifting attitudes towards work, agriculture and (yes) power, how civilisations since time immemorial have used the sun and the stars to forecast harvest, droughts and legitimise divine rule...it is riveting stuff. What is most pertinent, however, is the ending chapter: how we have become disconnected from our intrinsic relationship with the cosmos, harming our biology, health and even life satisfaction. This is a tonic for all those intellectually curious about the anthropology of stargazing, a perfect companion with Rovelli's poetic tour-de-force 'The Order of Time' and Dunkley's back-to-basics 'Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide'.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ben Rogers

    Lots of history (not my favorite). Some good parts though (yay). But still lots of speculation instead of science (hmm). 2.7/5

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kee Onn

    In the days before lamps and clocks, the night sky is an ever-present entity looming above our ancestors, its variegated displays and steady repetition inspiring creation myths and timekeeping practices. Seeking to understand the cosmos and our place in it, humans have devised increasingly complex models of mathematics, clocks, and abstract geometry - which brought us closer to understanding the universe, but at the same time detached our everyday lives from the source of inspiration. This book In the days before lamps and clocks, the night sky is an ever-present entity looming above our ancestors, its variegated displays and steady repetition inspiring creation myths and timekeeping practices. Seeking to understand the cosmos and our place in it, humans have devised increasingly complex models of mathematics, clocks, and abstract geometry - which brought us closer to understanding the universe, but at the same time detached our everyday lives from the source of inspiration. This book brings us on a journey from the earliest depictions of the heavens to the present, where scientists are beginning to find evidence of deleterious effects from humanity's reclusion from the night sky. Vast in its coverage of many different fields of scholarly works, the book pulls together a coherent, engaging story and delivers to readers a new, holistic view of the night sky.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Felicia Edens

    I used to be able to read long, comprehensive books such as this one that cover a lot of history and biography, however, it doesn't seem right for where I'm at in my life right now. There are so many fascinating themes and topics within the book (such as the positions of the planets and their orbits, the different ways people understood the cosmos from ancient times to today, and the importance of ancient art in showing how the cosmos influenced humanity's understanding of creation) but I'd pref I used to be able to read long, comprehensive books such as this one that cover a lot of history and biography, however, it doesn't seem right for where I'm at in my life right now. There are so many fascinating themes and topics within the book (such as the positions of the planets and their orbits, the different ways people understood the cosmos from ancient times to today, and the importance of ancient art in showing how the cosmos influenced humanity's understanding of creation) but I'd prefer an in-depth look at one or two of these subject matters rather than an onslaught of information. I might go back to this one at another time.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    Once I taught a course called "Intro to Humanities" for a community college in the South. The class was a chapter-by-chapter textbook walkthrough of all forms of capital-A Art: one week we learned about sculpture, the next music, the next architecture, then literature. It was SO much fun to teach and in the end we all had a great time but it made absolutely no sense--there would be no Intro to Sciences class that spent one week on biology, one week on physics, one week on psychology, etc. Then I Once I taught a course called "Intro to Humanities" for a community college in the South. The class was a chapter-by-chapter textbook walkthrough of all forms of capital-A Art: one week we learned about sculpture, the next music, the next architecture, then literature. It was SO much fun to teach and in the end we all had a great time but it made absolutely no sense--there would be no Intro to Sciences class that spent one week on biology, one week on physics, one week on psychology, etc. Then I read this book, and I was proven wrong, and I realized there is oh so very much I do not at all hecking know about. Like all of science. All of it. ENLIGHTENING, to say the least. Felt homeworky at times but that's due to my own ignorance of all science. All of it!

  14. 4 out of 5

    DRugh

    A great reminder that we are just a small part of a much much larger ecosystem. The chapters on life, consciousness, and myth interested me the most.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Eileen Gebbie, Reverential

    I so enjoyed the first few chapters that it is hard to believe I'm not even going to finish the book. But the absence of illustrations (and thus the need to look up the core issues of the book elsewhere), the repetitive structure of the chapters, and the substantial, multiple-dissertations-worth of claims put me off. While the the end matter shows substantial research, and I know this is a text for general readers, it did not work for me. I so enjoyed the first few chapters that it is hard to believe I'm not even going to finish the book. But the absence of illustrations (and thus the need to look up the core issues of the book elsewhere), the repetitive structure of the chapters, and the substantial, multiple-dissertations-worth of claims put me off. While the the end matter shows substantial research, and I know this is a text for general readers, it did not work for me.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    A well researched and thought out book full of interesting concepts, debates and facts from throughout human history in our relationship with the universe, from prehistory to the 21st century. If you aren't familiar with any scientific study of the cosmos, or it's been a while since you were sitting in science classes at school (like me), you might struggle with some of the academic jargon in the later chapters, but it is no means inaccessible in terms of the book and author's intended audience. I A well researched and thought out book full of interesting concepts, debates and facts from throughout human history in our relationship with the universe, from prehistory to the 21st century. If you aren't familiar with any scientific study of the cosmos, or it's been a while since you were sitting in science classes at school (like me), you might struggle with some of the academic jargon in the later chapters, but it is no means inaccessible in terms of the book and author's intended audience. I think some illustrations or pictures might have been a welcome addition to each chapter, not to make it easier to understand, but to perhaps break up some of the text (most chapters are 20+ pages but do have small breakers in the text), and to help the audience to comprehend certain concepts or studies (e.g. an illustration of the telescopes mentioned and how they work/worked) for the visual learners out there. Overall I really enjoyed reading it and I found out some fascinating things, and I adore books that make me stop and think about the deeper philosophical and scientific questions about life and its possibilities and wonder, both on Earth and beyond the stars. If anyone is curious or interested in how our relationship with the universe as a species has continued and/or changed, then I highly recommend this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Funny, I see how science has taken away our personally experiences, how we are more disconnected from nature than ever before. Yet, I don’t see the universe as only science— I see us humans as “evolved” but just as connected to the rest of the universe than any other aspect of our galaxy. I’m an atheist. I don’t agree with Christianity is that we are above or better than nature. We are nature. We are equal to all animals and aspects of life. When I look at the stars, I feel the most connected to Funny, I see how science has taken away our personally experiences, how we are more disconnected from nature than ever before. Yet, I don’t see the universe as only science— I see us humans as “evolved” but just as connected to the rest of the universe than any other aspect of our galaxy. I’m an atheist. I don’t agree with Christianity is that we are above or better than nature. We are nature. We are equal to all animals and aspects of life. When I look at the stars, I feel the most connected to the unknown, the bigger picture; and it’s the closest thing I have to spirituality. I’m small and insignificant in the vast galaxy yet I’m also important. I realize this statement contradicts itself but it’s how I feel looking at the sky. And I feel a sense of contentment. The only chapter I struggled with was Chapter 9 on art. Other than that I loved this book. The anthropology of it reeled me in—the prehistoric to modern day needs to be connected with the universe. I think it’s a fascinating sub-field (like medical or psychological anthropology) that I never would have conceptualized until I came across this book; And now I say “of course!” Star gazing is a fundamental part of our human nature. It’s innate.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Autumn

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. A really great follow-up to Michael Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind." Aspects of science, religion, humanities & inexplicable phenomenon were included - which generally makes for one of my favourite genres. An entire chapter devoted to American history was really the only downside. I particularly enjoyed the confirmation that religion has always been a bit of a grift. Religious scholars dedicated themselves to studying the stars not out of awe or interest in scientific development, but to learn A really great follow-up to Michael Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind." Aspects of science, religion, humanities & inexplicable phenomenon were included - which generally makes for one of my favourite genres. An entire chapter devoted to American history was really the only downside. I particularly enjoyed the confirmation that religion has always been a bit of a grift. Religious scholars dedicated themselves to studying the stars not out of awe or interest in scientific development, but to learn predictive patterns in astrological events - giving their "divination" credibility. If they could predict a solar eclipse, then God (or Gods) must obviously be channeling their sacred prophecies through these "holy" men. I also appreciated that upon the discovery of pulsars, Cambridge scientists were reluctant to engage immediately (in the event that these cosmic messages were from an alien life form) because of the historical destruction imposed upon new worlds and new societies by colonialists. Cambridge astrophysicists in the 1960s had a better understanding of the imperialist dismantling of societies and exploitation of resources than most lay people today. My, how far we've come.

  19. 5 out of 5

    IvanOpinion

    An interesting perspective on the interaction between human beliefs and our beliefs and knowledge of the world beyond the Earth. Although Marchant is arguing that hard science is not the be-all-and-end-all, she is not anti-science and gives a fair account of how and why scientific beliefs evolved. I'm not necessarily convinced by all of the arguments for giving greater weight to our experience and feelings, but I was pleased to learn more about some current ways of thinking. I thought the argume An interesting perspective on the interaction between human beliefs and our beliefs and knowledge of the world beyond the Earth. Although Marchant is arguing that hard science is not the be-all-and-end-all, she is not anti-science and gives a fair account of how and why scientific beliefs evolved. I'm not necessarily convinced by all of the arguments for giving greater weight to our experience and feelings, but I was pleased to learn more about some current ways of thinking. I thought the arguments were put forth in a clear way which did not stray too far into mystical, new age nonsense. The author did a good job of the narration. Self-narration can be a mistake when the author has an unappealing or annoying voice or poor diction or under- or over-does the expression of what they are saying. Marchant gets these right and you really get the sense of the author trying to convey her views to you.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dione

    Overall a pretty cool read that added to my knowledge of how beliefs about the stars and space impacted history and society. The chapters in this book were kind of hit and miss for me. I loved the first 7 sections on myth, land, fate, faith, time, ocean, and power. Some of the other sections on art and life were less engaging for me. "Almost every atom in our bodies was once part of a star." "Awe produces vanishing self," Keltner told me. "The voice in your head, self-interest, self-confidence, d Overall a pretty cool read that added to my knowledge of how beliefs about the stars and space impacted history and society. The chapters in this book were kind of hit and miss for me. I loved the first 7 sections on myth, land, fate, faith, time, ocean, and power. Some of the other sections on art and life were less engaging for me. "Almost every atom in our bodies was once part of a star." "Awe produces vanishing self," Keltner told me. "The voice in your head, self-interest, self-confidence, disappears." As a consequence we feel more connected to a greater whole: society, Earth, event the universe." "The expanded awareness of awe and transcendence, however, injects flexibility, creativity, and connection. It allows us to grasp a bigger reality, to look beyond the narros daily concerns and make decisions that not only make us happier as individuals, but also sustain the planet and work for the benefit of humanity as a whole.'

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bryce Wojo

    ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Marchant takes us on a trip through human history to see how the cosmos has influenced our thoughts and behaviour; from our cave dwelling ancestors to Russian avant-garde artists to our increasingly isolated lives today looking at screens under a sky full of light pollution. And I was hooked on every chapter. This is predominantly a history book and I learned of many stories and people I’ve never known. There are 55 pages of citations so this is well researched work. The only drag for ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Marchant takes us on a trip through human history to see how the cosmos has influenced our thoughts and behaviour; from our cave dwelling ancestors to Russian avant-garde artists to our increasingly isolated lives today looking at screens under a sky full of light pollution. And I was hooked on every chapter. This is predominantly a history book and I learned of many stories and people I’ve never known. There are 55 pages of citations so this is well researched work. The only drag for me was a chapter on history of astronomy starting with the Greeks; something that felt repetitive to any astronomy 101 book. I believe this is important work as it begs of us, as a human civilization, to be reminded and reflect upon our place in the greater cosmos, something our current way of living has buried away from us.

  22. 4 out of 5

    andrew

    Jo Marchant presents a wide ranging discussion of how humanity's perception of and fascination with the heavens has affected civilization from the Upper Paleolithic period to present times. A lot of material is covered in a fairly short book. What I found most interesting were the connections between celestial observations and scientific advancements (including in navigation, timekeeping and the knowledge of biological cycles). Less gripping was the discourse on how interest in the cosmos influe Jo Marchant presents a wide ranging discussion of how humanity's perception of and fascination with the heavens has affected civilization from the Upper Paleolithic period to present times. A lot of material is covered in a fairly short book. What I found most interesting were the connections between celestial observations and scientific advancements (including in navigation, timekeeping and the knowledge of biological cycles). Less gripping was the discourse on how interest in the cosmos influenced art and literature. I would include effects of phases of the moon on behavior in the latter category except for the fact that my medical office staff for years swore that a full moon brought out the crazies and I learned not to question that.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Will

    The book is very Western focused, which I believe was the crux of the argument's structure. Reads as an argument against strictly defining the cosmos, and our human relationship to them, using Enlightenment style scientific rationality. Instead, the author posits a narrative that urges us humans, mainly Westerners, to stretch our concepts of what we consider measurable beyond what they are confined to today. It would have been 5 stars if Marchant had dedicated a chapter or three to the explanati The book is very Western focused, which I believe was the crux of the argument's structure. Reads as an argument against strictly defining the cosmos, and our human relationship to them, using Enlightenment style scientific rationality. Instead, the author posits a narrative that urges us humans, mainly Westerners, to stretch our concepts of what we consider measurable beyond what they are confined to today. It would have been 5 stars if Marchant had dedicated a chapter or three to the explanation and confluence of Eastern philosophy and on our human relationship to the cosmos, instead of a couple short mentions at the very end of the book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ana

    This book takes us through the history of our relationship with the sky and stars, and shows how we have used our observation of the heavens to develop incredible structures of perception and beautiful, useful technologies, at the same time that we have been distancing ourselves from the skies and are coming back around to the realization that our experience of the awe to be found around us is just as vital as the steps we have taken to clamber among the stars. A gorgeous read, full of mesmerizi This book takes us through the history of our relationship with the sky and stars, and shows how we have used our observation of the heavens to develop incredible structures of perception and beautiful, useful technologies, at the same time that we have been distancing ourselves from the skies and are coming back around to the realization that our experience of the awe to be found around us is just as vital as the steps we have taken to clamber among the stars. A gorgeous read, full of mesmerizingly personal little histories that illustrate great and wonderful points about humanity and the universe.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rajesh Kandaswamy

    The book’s main focus is the relationship of humans to the stars. The book’s initial sections are effective in showing how humans have relied on the cosmos beyond earth for a long time and our sophistication in putting that knowledge to use. Using specific examples in history, the book also makes one realize how much the planets and the stars have been a part of our culture. As the author expands the scope of how the stars influence us, especially innately, the logic and evidence become too tenu The book’s main focus is the relationship of humans to the stars. The book’s initial sections are effective in showing how humans have relied on the cosmos beyond earth for a long time and our sophistication in putting that knowledge to use. Using specific examples in history, the book also makes one realize how much the planets and the stars have been a part of our culture. As the author expands the scope of how the stars influence us, especially innately, the logic and evidence become too tenuous, thin, and lost my attention. The writing is clear but doesn’t do much to enhance the narrative. An excellent subject and hopefully there will be more written on it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

    A thought-provoking book blending history, science, philosophy, art, and religion to tell the story of our relationship with the sky. Marchant makes a compelling case for reestablishing ourselves as a working part of the cosmos (and thus nature as a whole) rather than an entity separate from it. The book does veer a bit woo-woo at times but I honestly didn't mind. Totally dug the author's call for a better balance of science and experience in our relationship with the stars. Also: might be bette A thought-provoking book blending history, science, philosophy, art, and religion to tell the story of our relationship with the sky. Marchant makes a compelling case for reestablishing ourselves as a working part of the cosmos (and thus nature as a whole) rather than an entity separate from it. The book does veer a bit woo-woo at times but I honestly didn't mind. Totally dug the author's call for a better balance of science and experience in our relationship with the stars. Also: might be better subtitled *Western* Civilization and the Stars. Eastern cultures, Africa, and the Americas largely absent from the book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    David

    An interesting discussion of our view of the Universe - from myths to astrology to our current scientific perspective. Merchant argues that we’ve lost touch with the Universe - even astronomers rely on sensors and computers rather than their eyes. Finding a way to be truly awestruck by Universe might be the antidote to the problems in our world, so say some of the philosopher-physicists that Marchant interviews. Maybe: stargazing is an awesome hobby and having one’s head in the stars isn’t such An interesting discussion of our view of the Universe - from myths to astrology to our current scientific perspective. Merchant argues that we’ve lost touch with the Universe - even astronomers rely on sensors and computers rather than their eyes. Finding a way to be truly awestruck by Universe might be the antidote to the problems in our world, so say some of the philosopher-physicists that Marchant interviews. Maybe: stargazing is an awesome hobby and having one’s head in the stars isn’t such a bad thing.

  28. 5 out of 5

    danny ramos

    * Humans have always been fascinated by the night sky and for millennia, celestial objects were the basis of society * As western society evolved, we lost our reliance on the cosmos. instead if it being interwoven into our lives, science reduced the physical world to a mystery of Objective Reality to Be Revealed * The same science that separated us from the cosmos has introduced new mysteries in the 20th-21st century, reviving questions about whether we live in an interconnected cosmic universe

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

    The book is split into surveys of the philosophical / cultural impacts of living under the stars, and a more technical-science-rational look at advances in scientific knowledge about the universe. I picked this up expecting more of the former than the latter, and if you've read popular science books or even historical fiction, you'll know plenty about the latter already. But to its great credit the book ends on notes of connectedness and awe, which are missing from our daily lives, and musings o The book is split into surveys of the philosophical / cultural impacts of living under the stars, and a more technical-science-rational look at advances in scientific knowledge about the universe. I picked this up expecting more of the former than the latter, and if you've read popular science books or even historical fiction, you'll know plenty about the latter already. But to its great credit the book ends on notes of connectedness and awe, which are missing from our daily lives, and musings on how we might regain them today despite our blindness to the skies above.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Marilyn

    Really enjoyed this. It was a pretty ambitious concept to cover all these ways humans have been influenced by the cosmos, but the author pulled it off well. My only complaint is that it would have really benefited from images, especially in the earlier chapters where she's describing artifacts and the design of ancient structures. It got to be a bit of a hassle to stop every few pages to look up pictures. This would make a really neat miniseries with an episode for each chapter. Really enjoyed this. It was a pretty ambitious concept to cover all these ways humans have been influenced by the cosmos, but the author pulled it off well. My only complaint is that it would have really benefited from images, especially in the earlier chapters where she's describing artifacts and the design of ancient structures. It got to be a bit of a hassle to stop every few pages to look up pictures. This would make a really neat miniseries with an episode for each chapter.

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