The Sun Kings

The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy BeganThe Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t get to read a lot of popularizations in the course of my research on nineteenth-century astronomy, so when this one came across my desk I was on the one hand excited about a change of pace (“captivating, fast-paced” says Dava Sobel on the cover) and on the other figuring I’d be skimming much of it and rolling my eyes a lot. I tend to do this with books that have long and overly-dramatic subtitles like “The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.”

I was half right. I did indeed do a lot of skimming, but I also did much less eye-rolling than I anticipated. Clark weaves a compelling tale, even if you don’t consider an understanding of the dynamic Earth-Sun relationship (think SOHO and Spaceweather.com) to be the beginning of modern astronomy. (I don’t.) The book is a bit less than the subtitle makes it out to be, as I’m still not  sure what Carrington’s “unexpected tragedy” was or how it relates to the scientific quest to understand the Sun’s interaction with the Earth, but it was a quite enjoyable romp through the world of Victorian astronomy.

Because it’s such an interesting place, Victorian astronomy, you almost can’t help to tell a compelling story if you go into it with some historical grounding and a flair for narrative. Clark treats one aspect of what was happening during this period: the development of solar astronomy. At the beginning of the 1800s, no one had any idea what the structure of the Sun was or how it generated its energy. One prevailing theory was that it was composed of a solid (and possibly inhabited!) core surrounded by a luminous atmosphere. Sunspots were rifts in this solar atmosphere. Clarke recounts how a series of dedicated astronomers– both professional and amateur– deduced a link between sunspots, the solar cycle, and effects on the Earth such as magnetic disturbances and auroral activity. Carrington is simply one of a cast that includes many important astronomers from this period, though Carrington’s drive and complex personal life, as well as his final demise (and this is likely the tragedy referred to in the subtitle, though seemingly unrelated to solar physics) make him an especially compelling figure.

Even if you’re not interested in the ins and outs of the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field or the advances in spectroscopy and photography that made the discoveries documented in this book possible, it’s the historical characters like Carrington who make studies in Victorian science so readable. Carrington was one of many amateur astronomers during this period who made their fortune in business (in Carrington’s case a brewery) and then used this wealth to build elaborate personal observatories where they could pursue astronomy as a hobby. Carrington devoted himself to solar astronomy and became a recognized authority on the subject. Besides him though, the pages are filled with other characters equally interesting: Airy, the Astronomer Royal and the story’s villain, storming about at Greenwich pursuing mathematical accuracy and largely dismissive of the new physical astronomy; de la Rue laboring in Spain to photograph the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time during a solar eclipse; Maunder taking up Carrington’s work after Carrington’s death and marrying the young mathematician hired to aid his calculations. Interesting characters pursuing interesting work. Maybe exaggerated or characatured just a bit, but they all come in and out of the story so quickly and in such succession that Clark can’t be blamed much for emphasizing their most interesting features.

It was an exciting time in astronomy, and Clark captures this. I’ll keep it on the shelf, because it would be ideal book report material for an undergraduate astronomy course. A historian will find Clark’s lack of careful documentation maddening and his rhetoric at times excessive or overblown, but a student (or reader) with a passing interest in the history of astronomy might find it a door to a truly remarkable period in history.

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