I am reading my college level undergraduate astronomy textbook. It has lot of ínfromation but every page rises a similar question in my mind: "How do they know it?". It starts from simple things like radius of earth, other planets, masses, composition, distances of stars, temperatures, luminosities etc. How did scientists know these is a question that pops up in my mind about every fact I read. Do you have any book recommendations which mostly (if not exclusively) focuses on the question "How do scientists know it?"

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    $\begingroup$ A book on the history of astronomy, perhaps? $\endgroup$ – usernumber Nov 26 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is often a blind spot of science communication. Most books (and most school curricula for that matter) are focused on "Here's a bunch of facts we know" and not "Here's how we figured that out". To be fair the 'how we figured it out' stuff is often a lot more dry than the bare facts, but it's still an important aspect to communicate. $\endgroup$ – Ingolifs Nov 26 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the slogan of the Astronomycast podcast: "... where we tell you not just what we know, but how we know that we know it." $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Nov 26 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ Like with most sciences, a lot of what astronomers 'know' is really educated guesswork. We know Earth's radius pretty well since we're on it, but thinks like star temperatures, distance, etc are ultimately "guesswork" based on certain assumptions. $\endgroup$ – barrycarter Nov 26 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Ingolifs I don't agree that it is necessarily more dry than bare facts. Much the contrary! Discoveries involve trial and error, and humans. Telling these stories of discovery can be just as interesting the discoveries themselves. $\endgroup$ – usernumber Nov 29 at 16:30

There are books that treat the general history of astronomy, such as those mentioned in the previous post.

Some books focus on discoveries from a certain period of history

  • The Cosmic Century by Malcolm S. Longair details discoveries that were made in the twentieth century.

Other books retrace the "how we know it" of specific phenomena

  • Flash by Govert Schilling traces the story of how we discovered what we know about gamma ray bursts.

  • Cosmic noise : a history of early radio astronomy, by Sullivan, Woodruff Turner III focuses on what we learned from radio astronomy.


You could try The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Hoskin. Or, for a more detailed but more expensive textbook, The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy edited by Michael Hoskin.


If you wanted to focus on one discovery that changed the world, I would suggest "Longitude" by Dava Sobel. It shows how something that could be dry - how navigators discovered what longitude was - is in fact a page-turning detective story. It was also made into a movie.



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