Alan Hirshfeld '73
Alan Hirshfeld '73

The book: A cadre of 19th-century amateur astronomers and inventors played a significant role in the birth of modern astronomy. In Starlight Detectives, Hirshfeld reveals the stories of those ambitious dreamers, among them William Bond, who turned his home into a functional observatory, and a father and son who were trailblazers in astrophotography. The tales Hirshfeld recounts reveal the persistence and imagination required for scientific progress.

The author: Hirshfeld, who has written several books about scientific discoveries, is a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and an associate of the Harvard College Observatory.

Opening lines: “Under a starry sky on the evening of April 13, 1842, three cauldrons were tipped and four tons of molten metal spilled into a circular iron mold. The seething mass, 126.4 parts copper to 58.9 parts tin by weight, was to become the optical heart of the world’s largest telescope, whose space-penetrating power would eclipse that of any astronomical instrument in existence.”

Review: “A delightful, detailed chronicle of great men (and a rare woman) whose fascination with the night sky and the technology necessary to study it led to today’s dramatic discoveries,” writesKirkus Reviews. Hirshfeld “brings forth a large and mostly unfamiliar cast of remarkably interesting characters. Many of them were amateurs in an age when that was not a derogatory term but denoted ‘lovers’ of astronomy in the most literal, positive, and passionate sense,” says The Wall Street Journal.