This book came with a stellar recommendation from AC, and it does not disappoint. A lot of the time, I read a book I like and I can apply my overactive imagination and conceive of having written it myself. Like, if I'd happened to be French, born 40 years earlier, and about a dozen times as inventive and witty as I in fact am, I could have written Boris Vian's L'Ecume des jours
. If I'd gone into hard science and, you know, turned out to be unexpectedly good at it, I might conceivably have written Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics
But sometimes it's just impossible, and this is one of those depressing cases. Try as I will, I don't see how I could ever have written this book. The late Otto Neugebauer seems to know more about science in the ancient world than anyone could reasonably manage in a single lifetime. He has all the Greek and Latin authors at his fingertips - goes without saying, really - but he also knows how to read Babylonian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sanskrit, and various Indian languages. He understands the whole process of interpreting these ancient documents, all the way from digging three thousand year old clay tablets out of the ground, through preserving them so they don't immediately crumble into dust, past the relatively trivial business of turning vague markings I can barely see into letters, words and numbers, and up to the really interesting task of understanding them as astronomical tables and algorithms. He gives examples of how he does it, and I am simply astonished. It's like Sherlock Holmes at work, but considerably more difficult, and he's not a fictional character.
I had seen several very incomplete accounts of Babylonian astronomy and not understood any of them; after reading Neugebauer, I have a much clearer notion of what these early astronomers could and couldn't do. They had some remarkably sophisticated empirical methods for calculating the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets by using painstakingly compiled tables. But it seems impossible to see how they could have taken them far enough that they would have been able to predict eclipses with any accuracy, and Neugenbauer makes a good case for discounting stories of ancient eclipse prediction as exaggerations or lucky guesses.
In one of the appendices, he presents a wonderfully concise summary of Ptolemy's astronomical system; again, I had seen many vague references, but not understood any of the details. Neugebauer loves details, and gives many of them here. In passing, he casually raps Pierre Duhem (one of the great authorities in the field) over the knuckles and shows how he has completely misunderstood Ptolemy's model of lunar motion. Rather unwillingly - he evidently feels it's so obvious it hardly needs to be stated - he also explains just why Ptolemaic astronomy was an extremely good piece of science, and why the "Copernican revolution" was not much more than a minor correction to it.
It's odd that this extraordinarily gifted person is not better known. If you want to know what real scholarship and insight looks like, check out his book.