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Remember the stars?

The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars. Jo Marchant, Dutton, 2020. 388 pages.

Marchant is concerned about how modern people and our cultures have lost touch with the sky. Paradoxically, we think of ourselves as living in a larger world than our ancestors. But in truth, by cutting ourselves off from the sky, we live in a much smaller world.

This process of cutting ourselves off has a long history that began centuries before GPS and light pollution. The invention of clocks, for example, in the Middle Ages, meant that people no longer had to look up at the sky to estimate the time. The regimentation of our lives made possible by clocks is something that never occurs to us, but Marchant covers clocks in the fourth chapter, “Faith,” in which she relates how the development of clocks had a great deal to do with the church, specifically the need of the Benedictine monasteries to be more precise in carrying out their 24-hour cycle of rituals.

Marchant starts with paleolithic cave drawings and works forward in time: sites such as Stonehenge, then Babylon, Egypt, Ptolemy, clocks and the middle ages, ocean navigation, the development of modern astronomy, and the interaction even today of plant and animal life with the celestial world.

This is not an academic book; it’s a survey rather than an in-depth exploration of any of its topics. But the book’s extensive notes provide a good list of sources for further reading. There also is an index. The book will serve as a good reference. It will end up on my best bookshelf.


  1. Chenda wrote:

    This morning I was listening to a lecture by an Islamic scholar who argued that the recent rise in atheism was partially attributable to light pollution and the lack of seeing the night sky in all its glory. He might have had a point 🙂

    Thursday, September 30, 2021 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi, Chenda: That would make total sense to me. Lucky for me, one of the darkest areas on the U.S. East Coast is about 45 miles north of me up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I need to get up there more often.

    Thursday, September 30, 2021 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Chenda wrote:

    Sounds great David. In the South Downs National Park we have a dark night sky reserve, I doubt it’s anything like as dark as the Blue Ridge Mountains but it’s welcome nonetheless, and makes for some nice nighttime drives.

    Thursday, September 30, 2021 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    You are fortunate! Have you noticed Jupiter lately, by the way? It’s so bright that it can be seen clearly even after moonrise.

    I’ve often said that air and the stars are worth traveling for. The stars I saw on the island of Gometra in Scotland were the brightest I had seen since the mountains of California near Yosemite. And that’s another thing that California has in common with parts of the U.K. and Ireland. The air off the Pacific in San Francisco is always great, but the Pacific air on Coronado Island near San Diego is even better. I’d go to Lewis and Harris again just to have the air off the North Atlantic.

    Thursday, September 30, 2021 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Chenda wrote:

    Yes I saw Jupiter yesterday, it was really bright! Reminds me of the Hale Bopp comet in 1997. I know what you mean by the feeling of the air, although I’m embarrassed to say I’ve seen very little of Scotland, only a few days in Edinburgh and I once stayed on the shores of Loch Awe. One day I should do a proper road trip up there to the islands.

    Thursday, September 30, 2021 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

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