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New Book by Prof. Bryan Penprase, "The Power of Stars," Traces Cultural Roots of Modern Astronomy

"The Power of Stars" book cover

For Hawaiian navigators, the star Sirius was “Hokuho’okelewa’a,” meaning “star to guide canoe.” Traditional Aboriginal Australians looked at the Magellanic Clouds and saw distant campfires in the sky.

In every culture, from prehistory to the modern day, the stars have played a key role in inspiring and shaping human efforts to understand and master the universe we live in. In his newly published book, The Power of Stars: How Celestial Observations Have Shaped Civilization, Professor of Astronomy Bryan Penprase traces the cultural roots of modern astronomy through the various cosmologies, mythologies, calendaring systems, monuments and theories with which people around the world have connected the heavens to their own lives.

Based on a course titled “Archaeoastronomy and World Cosmology,” which Penprase created and has taught at Pomona College for the past 15 years, the book is intended to serve not only as a textbook for similar courses, but also as a guide to the night skies for anyone interested in the ways different cultures throughout history have reacted to the stars.

“In these pages,” Penprase says in the opening section of the book, “we will explore the many ways in which humans throughout time have responded to the sky. Sometimes they responded with fear, sometimes with great artistry and other times with great rationality. Each culture of the world for thousands of years viewed the same stars and planets we can observe on any clear night. And the power of the night sky, filled with shimmering stars, has left its mark on human civilization.”

The book ranges around the globe from the ancient Babylonians to the Incas, from Greek myths to Australian creation stories, from Mayan calendars to the Chinese Zodiac, and from the Egyptian pyramids to such modern celestial structures as the Rodin Crater Project of artist James Turrell '65, concluding with a brief history of the modern scientific understanding of the universe. The book also includes more than 200 images, including original artwork from his students as well as photographs by Professor of Art Sheila Pinkel and and Associate Professor of Antropology Jennifer Perry. 

Penprase, the Frank P. Brackett Professor of Astronomy and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been a member of the Pomona College faculty since 1993. He received his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago.

Penprase's research in astronomy and astrophysics has taken him around the world, to observe with telescopes such as the Australian AAT; the observatories of CTIO and ESO in Chile; Caltech's telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and at Palomar, Calif.; Pomona College’s telescopes on Table Mountain and Claremont, Calif. and the Nordic Optical Telescope in La Palma, Spain. He is currently a member of an international team conducting the largest study ever of near-Earth asteroids. The Power of Stars is his first book.


Bryan Penprase
Frank P. Brackett Professor of Astronomy
Pomona College

For book review copies:
Christopher Coughlin
(212) 460-1529

Book information:
Springer, 1st Edition, Oct. 2010