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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 1998 > Bookshelf Detail


Star Power

Richard Berendzen

American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859–1940. John Lankford. xxxvi + 447 pp. University of Chicago Press, 1997. $65.

While astronomers have explored the cosmos, they also have created their own universe of personalities, observatories and organizations. This sociological universe has included galaxies of research facilities, a vast array of main sequence astronomers, a few true superstars and some unusual or difficult-to-explain sightings. Just like the real universe, the social world of astronomers is fascinating and worth studying. Despite this, however, the sociology of astronomy has not been explored carefully before this exceptional book by John Lankford. A dozen years in preparation, this opus presents an exhaustive review of sources along with 27 pages of references. It likely will remain the definitive work on its subject for some time.

An adjunct professor of history at Kansas State University, Lankford has ferreted through documents, files and archives to come up with this treasure trove on the community, careers and power in American astronomy from 1859 to 1940. He has compiled data on almost every facet of the topic: the number of people with and without doctorates, the number who taught in higher education, the number in industry or government, the number of women, the number of men. As Lankford explains in the preface, such a study would have been impossible without the personal computers and optical scanners that enabled him to assemble and examine vast amounts of information. In Lankford's book, what might have been merely dry statistics become an engrossing and instructive story.

Lankford chose 1859 as the starting date for his study because that year Bunsen and Kirchhoff announced empirical laws for the physical interpretation of spectra, and he chose 1940 for the ending date because, he says, the coming of World War II marked a "watershed." The interlocking chapters discuss topics ranging from traditional celestial mechanics to the new field of astrophysics, from education and the nature of careers to power, the reward system and gender.

American Astronomy provides an especially insightful analysis of power and leadership, national differences and gender bias. Lankford takes an unusual approach in discussing power. He does not see it as an object or purely as funding; rather, to him it is a network of complex relationships of individuals, groups and resources. He also gives a detailed analysis of the reward system, which he largely defines as the award of a star in American Men of Science. His discussion of gender recites not only statistics and familiar stories about Maria Mitchell and other women pioneers, but also fascinating, lesser-known vignettes. His style intertwines data about the field and its practitioners with stories about their lives. Thus it incorporates both quantitative and qualitative interpretations of human behavior. This approach simultaneously informs and engages the reader.

Despite these laudatory aspects, a few complaints might be registered. Langford's writing style sometimes becomes overly scholastic, and parts of the book roam into arcane territory for most readers. For instance, he refers without explanation to such matters as the "famous frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner" and "the social constructivist school." Although this book will appeal to historians of science, astronomers with a historical bent and sociologists of science, it probably will have a limited audience. But for those who want to understand the social history of American astronomy, this is the one book to read—indeed, to study and enjoy, not only for its content, but also for its methodology. It is a tour de force.—Richard Berendzen, Physics, American University


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