Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers is well-known as both a group biography of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo and an account of the revolutionary turn in astronomy that, in Koestler's phrasing, they ‘sleepwalked’ through. I think it's an excellent text, and I'm not aware of that being a fringe opinion.

Koestler's description seems judicious, but he isn't shy of taking a point of view of the events he's describing. While he isn't so crass as to talk about goodies and baddies, it's clear, for example, that he isn't inclined to cast Galileo as as much of a hero as some people might, in the history of astronomy.

But it's now more than 60 years since it was published, and histories often become dated as more evidence appears and consensuses evolve. Is this still seen as a good overview? Is there a better one? What does one read next?

One next text is Feyerabend's version of the history of Galileo's interaction with the church, in Against Method. That's excellent argumentative fun, but Feyerabend's intentions mean that it reads like it's intended for an audience that's well enough informed about the background that he doesn't have to be nit-picking about the details, or be over-scrupulous about being balanced.


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As the question says, Arthur Koestler in 'The Sleepwalkers' "isn't shy of taking a point of view of the events he's describing". Koestler's book offered a gripping collective account of Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo. It's highly arguable that it needs supplementing nowadays. After reading it, many a modern reader might be interested in individual descriptions of those four pioneers and their work. I don't know that anyone else has tried a new collective account, but there are several more recent works on the individuals that offer a variety of perspectives, well worth at least dipping into. The value of dipping into a variety of accounts can be, that it gives insight to identify points on which there is consensus, and to separate them from points that are more controversial or contentious and individual to each historian-interpreter.

On Copernicus, a fairly short but thought-provoking and insightful perspective was offered in 1973 by Willy Hartner in "Copernicus: The Man, the Work, and its History", (Proc Amer Phil Soc vol 117(6) 413-422). Another appreciation, more recent and also insightful, is Sheila Rabin's 'Nicolaus Copernicus', in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For a closer look at his work, probably two of the best accounts are in Noel Swerdlow's 'Derivation and First Draft of Copernicus's Planetary Theory: A Translation of the Commentariolus with Commentary', and (if you can access it) also Swerdlow & Neugebauer's 'Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus'. A useful brief perspective account of Copernicus in the University of St Andrews series is at (https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Copernicus/).

On Tycho, a highly recommendable biography and perspective on his work (1990) is in 'Lord of Uraniborg: a biography of Tycho Brahe' by V E Thoren, with contributions by J R Christianson, and a briefer account, with (as usual) plenty of onward references is in the St Andrews series at (https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Brahe/).

With Kepler, there is a mainstream and then some far-out ideas in circulation. For the mainstream, recommendable accounts include the good biography, originally in German, by Max Caspar, since translated into English by Doris Hellman (https://books.google.com/books?id=0r68pggBSbgC), and then the account in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Daniel di Liscia (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kepler/) and the short account in the St Andrews series (https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Kepler/). Another more recent good biography, 'Johannes Kepler' by Volker Bialas (2004), remains, as far as I know, in German only, without an English translation yet. A very good and readable account of how Kepler put together his account of his prime discoveries is in James Voelkel's (2001) 'Composition of Kepler's Astronomia Nova'.

When we get to Galileo there is much contentious material about. First, the good mainstream accounts include the one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by P Machamer and D M Miller (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/galileo/) and the St Andrews account (https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Galileo/). It is impossible to ignore the many contentious accounts of Galileo, and perhaps one of the best forums to show the vigorous debates about them can be found in the 'Renaissance Mathematicus' website, with perhaps the best place to start its 'Galileo starter kit' with a wide variety of sources and opinions.

{edit} I should have added references to the OUP 'Very Short Introduction' series, with relevant books on Copernicus, the History of Astronomy, Kepler, and Galileo.

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    $\begingroup$ What are the "far-out ideas in circulation" about Kepler you are referring to? $\endgroup$
    – d_e
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ A splendid answer – thank you. There's lots of supplementary reading there, at whatever length one wishes! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ @d_e Perhaps he means Wolfgang Pauli? He wrote a big essay on Kepler, believe, inspired by the ideas of (and presumably his friendship with) Carl Jung. $\endgroup$
    – R.P.
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 11:55

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