Higher Speculations

Books 3
Image Credit: Ed Robertson

For centuries, people have been fascinated by the night sky and wondered what exactly they were seeing. Scientific advances subsequently made it easier for astronomers to observe the heavens, and develop theories better explaining the various astronomical objects and phenomena. Because outer space was left unexplored until the 20th century, however, theories were almost entirely developed based on observation and inference. Even in today’s modern world where we can only explore a small fraction of the universe, much of astronomy is a best guess rather than a completely verifiable fact.

As a result of the limitations involved in studying astronomy, there have been many theories and studies that have been completely disproven over the years. While it’s tempting to simply forget these failures and incorrect assumptions, examining them and seeing how and why they were wrong can help us to learn more about the history of the subject, as well as the future of modern astronomy. “Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology” is a book that allows readers to do just that.

Written by Helge Kragh, “Higher Speculations” is a book about astronomy theories that seemed to be major breakthroughs at the time, but that ultimately turned out to be false. All in all, the book examines 12 different studies that were disproven by future generations, with Kragh taking the time to fully explain the theory itself and the history behind it, so that readers gain a good grasp of what was involved. Then, the discussion shifts to examining where the fault in the respective theory lies.

“Higher Speculations” is a book about scientific investigation, but it is told from the perspective of a historian, not an astronomer. As a result, the book reads more like a narrative of past events. It tells a story rather than belaboring the reader with complicated scientific discussions. This makes it possible for those without years of experience studying astronomy to understand the text and benefit from it.

Theories discussed in “Higher Speculations” run the gamut from purely scientific notions to theories that border on religious beliefs and science fiction. The book not only examines the theories and explains their shortcomings, but it also shows how the assumptions made by those who formulated the hypotheses impacted the study of astronomy as a whole.

The hard cover version of “Higher Speculations” is 416 pages long, so the book is a lengthy read. It is nicely divided into complete chapters, though, allowing it to be digested piecemeal by those with a limited amount of time. The author, Helge Kragh, is a professor of the history of science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He is considered a leader in his field and is a member of many reputable astronomy and history academic organizations. The book is written from a position of authority while still being written in a way that is approachable for readers of all levels of expertise.

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