July 2007

Melissa A. Barton


The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark

On September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer rocked England’s scientific world by observing a solar flare. The flare occurred in the midst of widespread auroras that disrupted telegraph systems around the world. This evidence that the distant sun could dramatically affect events on Earth changed the field of astronomy forever.

Stuart Clark’s The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began is a compelling account of how astronomers came to understand solar flares, sunspots, and magnetic storms. It is also a vivid portrait of the scientific climate of a vanished era.

In Carrington’s time, science was a popular vocation for men who had inherited wealth or who for some reason had to pursue a living elsewhere. These amateurs often used expensive and elaborate equipment, either purchased or their own innovations.

Like the professional scientists, they presented at meetings and published their work, and the lucky ones eventually acquired paid positions and became professionals. The divide between amateur and professional scientist was often small, as was the divide between scientist and engineer. In the early days of science, work could not progress without the invention of suitable instruments.

But like today, scientists struggled to balance the demands of public and government for applied science with the drive to collect data and conduct basic research. Some, like Carrington, believed that understanding sunspots would lead to understanding Earth’s climate, and consequently being able to prepare for severe droughts and other catastrophic events. Unfortunately for Carrington, much of the astronomical establishment did not believe the Sun affected the Earth except by providing sunlight.

Carrington’s inability to obtain a paid position, combined with family obligations and a poor marriage, shortened his scientific career. Other scientists, including George Ellery Hale, Edward Walter Maunder, and Annie Russell Maunder continued the work begun by Carrington. This time also marked the first real involvement of women in astronomy.

The Sun Kings is a story both of science and of society, rich with details of the lives of the pioneers of modern astronomy, from the rivalries between the scientists to the scandalous marriage and rumors of murder that may have led Carrington to take his own life. Clark gives equal attention to the science, however, wrapping up the book with a description of recent work on sunspots and climate, including the explanation of the Medieval Warm Period. Clark’s research is meticulous and clearly presented as an interesting story, moving naturally between events and people as the narrative demands.

The Sun Kings is an excellent and fast-paced read for anyone interested in astronomy, history, or human drama, as well as important context for understanding some of the reasons Earth’s climate changes over time. As Clark concludes, “If the story of the sun kings has anything to teach us, it is surely that coincidence is often the marker of hidden reality.” The Earth is closely tied to the wider universe, and Carrington’s story is a part of the larger picture of science and society.

The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691126607
224 Pages