A female star of a very male universe

Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics
August 2, 2002

The title of this book, Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics , is certainly appropriate. Although Agnes Clerke was never a professional astronomer, carried out very little personal research and had no professional qualifications, she was immensely influential. She died in 1907, but her three major books are still of value today.

This book by Mary Brück is the first full-length Agnes Clerke biography and gives an excellent account of her life and work. In fact, her life was not that exciting: she was born in Ireland but spent most of her life in England and devoted all her time to writing. However, she was amazingly versatile and fluent in several languages. She became famous with the publication of her first book, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century , which remains the standard work on the subject and is rich in references. There followed The System of the Stars and Problems in Astrophysics , which were of an equal standard. As Brück points out, Clerke corresponded on equal terms with the leading astronomers of the day and was accepted by them at a time when female scientific writers were almost unknown. Before her, only Mary Somerville had attained such status.

The book tells us much about Clerke's personality - shy, retiring and above all modest. Perhaps her greatest regret was that she never had the opportunity to carry out research of her own, but her lack of practical experience was seldom held against her and she was universally respected.

Brück paints a graphic picture of the state of astronomy during the latter part of the 19th century, introducing many of those who corresponded with Clerke, including David Gill, William and Margaret Huggins, George Ellery Hale and others, all of whom played major roles in the development of astronomical science.

Clerke was generally impartial, though she did cling to some ideas that even then sounded dubious - notably the claim that our galaxy comprised the whole universe: the theory that "spiral nebulae" were external systems was dismissed as a half-forgotten speculation. But her main task was to interpret the work of others and this she did superbly well.

Brück has put a tremendous amount of work into this book and her material has been well chosen, even though the chapter on other female astronomers not directly associated with Clerke seems a little out of place.

The style is clear and the extensive references will be of great value to scientific historians. Clerke deserves a good biography and Brück has provided one.

Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer and the author of more than 60 books.

Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics

Author - Mary Brück
ISBN - 0 521 80844 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 2

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