Saturday, 10 August 2013

Fjordman: The Legend of the Middle Ages

Here is the latest from the insightful European essayist Fjordman:

The book that inspired this text was
The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Rémi Brague, a French professor and specialist of medieval religious philosophy. He is also the author of the fine book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, which I have written an extensive essay about previously. Thematically this text overlaps to some extent with my essay Why Christians Accepted Greek Natural Philosophy, but Muslims Did Not and my reviews of the books Science and Religion by Edward Grant and Defending the West by Ibn Warraq. It also overlaps with some of the material I have included in my book Defeating Eurabia. I will include page references to the various book quotes so that others can use them and will supplement with some quotes from two good online interviews with Mr. Brague.

Medieval Muslims were reluctant to travel to infidel lands. According to Islamic jurists Muslims should not stay for too long in the lands of non-Muslims if they cannot live a proper Muslim life there. Muslims had little knowledge of or interest in any Western languages. Only Italian had some currency for commercial purposes, but mainly involving Jews and Eastern Christians, especially Greeks and Armenians. Few Muslims knew any non-Muslim languages well, the knowledge of which was considered unnecessary or even suspect.

Consequently, the translators of Greek and other non-Muslim scientific works to Arabic were never Muslims. They were Christians of the three dominant denominations plus a few Jews and Sabians. The language of culture for these Christians was Syriac (Syro-Aramaic or Eastern Aramaic) and their liturgical language was Greek. The translators already knew the languages they were to translate. We do have examples of translators who travelled to Greece to perfect their skills, but they were Christians for whom Greek was already at least a liturgical language. Here is Rémi Brague in The Legend of the Middle Ages, page 164:

"Neither were there any Muslims among the ninth-century translators. Almost all of them were Christians of various Eastern denominations: Jacobites, Melchites, and, above all, Nestorians (though I am not sure why the latter predominated). A few others were Sabians, a somewhat bizarre religious community with an intriguing history, whose elites were perhaps the last heirs of the pagan philosophers of the School of Athens. No Muslim learned Greek or, even less, Syriac. Cultivated Christians were often bilingual, even trilingual: they used Arabic for daily life, Syriac for liturgy, and Greek for cultural purposes. The translators that helped to pass along the Greek heritage to the Arabs were artisans who worked for private patrons, without institutional support. One often hears tell of the 'House of Wisdom' (bayt al-hikmah), a sort of research center subsidized by the caliphs that specialized in producing Arabic translations of Greek works. This is pure legend. The further back in time we go, the less the chroniclers connect the activity of translation with that 'house.' As an institution it was above all a propaganda office working for the Mu`tazilite doctrine supported by the caliphs."

The Baghdad-centered Abbasid Dynasty, which replaced the Damascus-centered Umayyad Dynasty after AD 750, was closer to pre-Islamic Persian culture and influenced by the Sassanid Zoroastrian practice of translating works and creating libraries. Even Dimitri Gutas admits this in his pro-Islamic book Greek Thought, Arab Culture. There was still a large number of Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews and they held a disproportionate amount of expertise in the medical field. According to author Thomas T. Allsen, Middle Eastern medicine in Mongol ruled China was "almost always" in the hands of Nestorian Christians.

One prominent translator was the Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873), called Johannitius in Latin. He was a Nestorian (Assyrian) Christian who had studied Greek in Greek lands, presumably in the Byzantine Empire, and eventually settled in Baghdad. He, his son and his nephew translated into Arabic, sometimes via Syriac, Galen's medical treatises as well as Hippocratic works and texts by Aristotle, Plato and others. His own compositions include the Ten Treatises on the Eye, which transmitted a largely Galenic theory of vision.

Thabit ibn Qurra (ca. 836-901) was a member of the Sabian sect of star worshippers who had adopted much of Greek culture. His native language was Syriac but he knew Greek and Arabic well. He worked for years in Baghdad where he produced influential Arabic translations or revised earlier ones of Ptolemy's Almagest and works by Archimedes and Apollonius. Later Arabic versions developed from his version of Euclid's Elements. He was also an original mathematician who contributed to geometry and the theory of numbers.

Aramaic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. It was once the lingua franca of much of the Near East after the ancient Persians had made it their Imperial language. It was supplemented by Greek after the conquest of this region by Alexander the Great. A young Jew such as Jesus of Nazareth in Roman-ruled Palestine would probably have known some Hebrew, still the religious language but no longer the spoken language of the Jews. He would most likely have used Aramaic for preaching although it is possible that he knew some Greek.

Syriac or Syro-Aramaic gradually gave way to Arabic after the Arab conquest of this region, but when the Koran was composed, Arabic did not yet exist as a written language. Author Ibn Warraq estimates that up to 20% of the Koran is incomprehensible even to educated Arabs because parts of it were originally written in another related language before Muhammad was born, if Muhammad as he is described to us ever existed at all, that is.

The author of the most important work on this subject, a German professor of Semitic languages, due to potential threats writes under the
pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg. According to him, certain obscure passages of the chapters or suras of the Koran usually ascribed to the Mecca period, which are also the most tolerant ones as opposed to the much harsher and more violent chapters allegedly from Medina, are not "Islamic" at all but based on Christian hymns in Syriac, Biblical texts adapted for liturgical use:

"In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services...Its socio-political sections, which are not especially related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society."

While many philosophical and scientific works (but hardly any literary or historical ones) were translated into Arabic, Muslims didn't preserve the originals as these were now seen as unnecessary. This made the phenomena of "renaissances" impossible -- that is, a return to the original texts to reinterpret and study them with fresh and unbiased eyes. Muslims themselves virtually never learned Greek. Here is The Legend of the Middle Ages again, page 168:

"Those who knew Greek had been raised bilingual because they were sons of an Arab father and a Greek mother. No Muslim seems to have ever learned a foreign language for theoretical reasons rather than, for example, commercial reasons. The one exception is perhaps Farabi. One of his biographers relates that he is supposed to have spent years in 'Greece' in order to study there. This information is all the more interesting because the word used is not 'Rum,' which designated Constantinople, but rather 'Yunan,' which can mean only Greece. One might well wonder where, to what center of teaching, in Greece of the time might a student from the Muslim world have possibly gone. Farabi does not seem to have shown proof of a very profound knowledge of Greek. He does indeed cite a few words of that language. But the etymological explanations that he gives of the titles of some of Plato's dialogues are sheer fantasy. The only real exception is Biruni. But he is an exception that proves the rule: the language that he learned was not Greek, but Sanskrit. Biruni had learned that language to the point of being able to translate into it from Arabic."

Islamic civilization, in sharp contrast to the European one, never used its knowledge of the foreign as an instrument that would permit it, through comparison and distancing in relations to itself, to understand itself by becoming conscious of the non-obvious character of its cultural practices. An extremely rare exception to this rule may be the eleventh century Persian polymath al-Biruni. As Brague states in his book Eccentric Culture, page 112-113:

"It may be that its geographers made a eulogy of India and of China in order to address a discreet critique of the Islamic civilization of their time, often compensated in the last instance by an affirmation of the religious superiority of the latter. The examples that one could find of such a vision 'reflected' in the mirror are exceptional and come from marginal or heretical thinkers. Thus, the contact with the Brahmin Hindu thinkers whose religion does quite well without prophecy (which the Islamic religion declares on the contrary necessary to the happiness of man and to a good social order) posed a problem for the Muslim thinkers; the real or fictitious dialogue with the Brahmins was able to serve to mask a critique of the Islamic religion in a free thinker like Ibn al-Rawandi. The only incontestable exception is without doubt the astonishing work of Al-Biruni on India. This universal scholar (973-1048), astronomer, geographer, historian, mineralogist, pharmacologist etc., had taken the trouble to learn enough Sanskrit to be able to translate in both directions between this language and Arabic (for him also a learned language). He presented a tableau of Hindu society and beliefs with perfect impartiality."

Greek translations heavily influenced Middle Eastern scholars.
Al-Kindi (died ca. AD 873), commonly known as "the Philosopher of the Arabs," lived in Baghdad and was close to several Abbasid Caliphs. Al-Kindi did significant work on optics and made notable mathematical contributions to cryptography. Al-Farabi (ca. 875-950), "perhaps the greatest" Muslim philosopher according to Brague, came to Baghdad from Central Asia, emphasized human reason and was more original than many of his successors. In How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, writer De Lacy O'Leary states that "It is significant that almost all the great scientists and philosophers of the Arabs were classed as Aristotelians tracing their intellectual descent from al-Kindi and al-Farabi." The attempt to reconcile Islam with Greek philosophy was to last for several centuries and ultimately prove unsuccessful due to religious resistance. For various reasons, al-Kindi and al-Farabi were not much translated into Latin.

As Rémi Brague states, "in the oft-romanticized city of Cordoba, the family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was banished, Averroes was exiled, and many Christians martyred." Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126-1198), was born in Cordoba, Spain (Andalusia). He faced trouble for his freethinking ways and is today often hailed as a beacon of "tolerance," yet he was also an orthodox jurist of sharia law and served as an Islamic judge in Seville. He approved, without reservation, the killing of heretics in a work that was wholly philosophical in nature. Nevertheless, he is remembered for his attempts to combine Aristotelian philosophy and Islam. He had a major influence on Latin scientists but was practically forgotten in the Islamic world, where philosophy went into permanent decline. The very influential al-Ghazali argued that much of Greek philosophy was an affront to Islam. Virtually all freethinkers within the Islamic world were at odds with Islamic orthodoxy and frequently harassed for this.

European Christians re-conquered Toledo in Spain and Sicily from the Muslims in 1085 and 1091, respectively. The great Italian (Lombard) translator Gerard of Cremona (ca. 1114-1187) was by far the most prolific translator from Arabic to Latin of works on science and natural philosophy. He lived for years at Toledo, aided by a team of local Jewish interpreters and Latin scribes. David C. Lindberg argues that Alhazen's Book of Optics probably was translated during the late twelfth century by Gerard or somebody from his school; it was known in thirteenth century Europe. Many works initially translated from Arabic by Gerard and his associates, among them Ptolemy's great astronomical work the Almagest, were later translated directly from Greek into Latin from Byzantine manuscripts. Obviously, Alhazen's work had to be translated from Arabic since it was written in that language in the first place.

The basic principle of the astrolabe, a working model of the heavens, was a discovery of the ancient Greeks. Stereographic projection, one way among several of mapping a sphere onto a flat surface, was probably known to the great mathematical astronomer Hipparchus in the second century BC and was certainly in use by the first century BC when Vitruvius, the Roman writer on architecture and engineering, mentioned it. The first treatise on an astrolabe in the modern sense was probably written by Theon of Alexandria (ca. AD 335-405). He was a teacher of mathematics and wrote commentaries on the works of Ptolemy, including the Almagest, and made an influential edition with added comments of Euclid's Elements. Writer James E. Morrison is the author of the book
The Astrolabe. As Morrison says:

"The earliest astrolabes used in Europe were imported from Moslem Spain with Latin words engraved alongside the original Arabic. It is likely that European use of Arabic star names was influenced by these imported astrolabes. By the end of the 12th century there were at least a half dozen competent astrolabe treatises in Latin, and there were hundreds available only a century later. European makers extended the plate engravings to include astrological information and adapted the various timekeeping variations used in that era. Features related to Islamic prayers were not used on European instruments. The astrolabe was widely used in Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.. Astrolabe manufacturing was centered in Augsburg and Nuremberg in Germany in the fifteenth century with some production in France. In the sixteenth century, the best instruments came from Louvain in Belgium. By the middle of the seventeenth century astrolabes were made all over Europe."

The oldest surviving, moderately sophisticated scientific work in the English language is a Treatise on the Astrolabe, written by the English poet and philosopher Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400) for his son. His The Canterbury Tales are studded with astronomical references.

It should be noted that while it was a very popular device, the astrolabe was not a precision instrument even by medieval standards. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that approximate solutions to astronomical problems could be found by a mere glance at the instrument. The invention of the pendulum clock and more specialized and useful scientific devices such as the telescope from the seventeenth century on replaced the astrolabe in importance.

Nevertheless, its medieval reintroduction via the Islamic world did leave some traces. Quite a few star names in use in modern European languages, for instance Aldebaran or Algol, can be traced back to Arabic or Arabized versions of earlier Greek names. Today astronomers frequently identify stars by means of Bayer letters, introduced by the German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-16259) in his celestial atlas Uranometria from 1603. In this system, each star is labeled by a Greek letter and the Latin name of the constellation in which it is found.

It is true that there were translations from Arabic and that these did have some impact in Europe, leaving traces in star names and some mathematical and chemical terms. Yet far too much emphasis is currently placed on the translations themselves and too little on how the knowledge contained within these texts was actually used. After the translation movement it is striking to notice how fast Europeans vastly surpassed whatever scholarly achievements had been made in the medieval Middle East based on largely the same material.

Moreover, it is simply not true that these translations "rescued" the Classical heritage. This survived largely intact among Byzantine, Orthodox Christians. When Western, Latin Christians wanted to recover the Greco-Roman heritage they translated Greek historical works and literature as well, in addition to philosophy, medicine and astronomy, and copied works by Roman authors and poets in Latin which had been totally ignored by Muslims.

It is easy to track how Arabic translations of Greek texts from Byzantine manuscripts, almost always made by non-Muslims, made their way from the Islamic East to Sicily and southern Italy or to the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic West where some of them were translated by Jews and Christians, for instance in the multilingual city of Toledo in Spain, to Latin. It is true that some ancient Greek texts were reintroduced to the West via Arabic, sometimes passing via Syriac or Hebrew along the way, but these were usually based, in the end, on Byzantine originals. The permanent recovery of Greco-Roman learning and literature was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians.

The greatest translator from Greek to Latin was the Flemish scholar
William of Moerbeke (ca. 1215-ca. 1286), a contemporary of the prominent German scholar Albertus Magnus. He was fluent in Greek and made very accurate translations, still held in high regard today, from Byzantine originals and improved earlier translations of the works of Aristotle and many by Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria and others. Like his Italian friend the great theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), William of Moerbeke was a friar of the Dominican order and had personal contacts at the top levels of the Vatican, including several popes.

Thanks in part to William of Moerbeke's efforts, by the 1270s Western Europeans had access to Greek works that were never translated into Arabic, for instance Aristotle's Politics. This benefited Thomas Aquinas and his great theological work the Summa Theologica. The Spanish-born Jewish rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), famous for his The Guide for the Perplexed, attempted to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Biblical Scripture. Aquinas was well aware of his work as well as Muslim Aristotelian commentators such as Avicenna and Averroes, but he could be critical of Averroes and his use of Aristotle.

Renaissance figures in Italy and Western Europe had at their disposal a more complete body of Greek thought than any of the major Muslim philosophers ever did. The translation movement, which began in the late eleventh century, continued during the Renaissance and culminated in its final and arguably most important phase during the second half of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth with the introduction of the printing press. This invention vastly increased the circulation of books as well as the accuracy of their copying.

It was a major stroke of historical luck that printing was introduced in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the Roman Empire fell to Muslim Turks. Texts that had been preserved in Constantinople for a thousand years could now be permanently rescued. As Elizabeth L. Eisenstein says in her monumental The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

"The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West....We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way."

Muslims and Christians treated Greek philosophy very differently, partly because Judaism, Islam and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways. Brague points out that there are fundamental differences between them. It is a misunderstanding that there are "three religions of the book" because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion.

According to Rémi Brague, "In Judaism, the Tenakh is a written history of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, almost a kind of contract. In Christianity, the New Testament is the history of one person, Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God. In Islam, the Koran is 'uncreated' and has descended from the heavens in perfect form. Only in Islam is the book itself what is revealed by God. In Judaism God is revealed in the history of the Jewish people. In Christianity God is revealed as love in the person of Jesus. Judaism and Christianity are not religions of the book, but religions with a book. The third misconception is to speak of 'the three Abrahamic religions'. Christians usually refer to Abraham as a person who binds these three religions together, and who is shared by them. In Judaism, he is the 'founding father'. But in the Koran it is written: 'Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian.' (III, 67)....According to Islam, the first prophets received the same revelation as Mohammed, but the message was subsequently forgotten. Or it was tampered with, with evil intent. So according to Islam, the Torah and the Gospels are fakes."

In Islamic lands, falsafa remained a private affair, an unofficial matter for individuals in fairly restricted numbers. Philosophy was always marginal in the Islamic world and was never institutionalized there as it was in the European medieval universities. According to Rémi Brague, theology as such is a Christian specialty. He even claims that "'theology' as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm's program) exists only in Christianity."

states that "The great philosophers of Islam were amateurs, and they pursued philosophy during their leisure hours: Farabi was a musician, Avicenna a physician and a vizier, Averroes a judge. Avicenna did philosophy at night, surrounded by his disciples, after a normal workday. And he did not refuse a glass of wine to invigorate him a bit and keep him on his toes. Similarly, among the Jews, Maimonides was a physician and a rabbinic judge, Gersonides was an astronomer (and astrologer), and so on. The great Jewish or Muslim philosophers attained the same summits as the great Christian Scholastics, but they were isolated and had little influence on society. In medieval Europe, philosophy became a university course of studies and a pursuit that could provide a living....You can be a perfectly competent rabbi or imam without ever having studied philosophy. In contrast, a philosophical background is a necessary part of the basic equipment of the Christian theologian. It has even been obligatory since the Lateran Council of 1215."

Demand usually precedes the presence of a product on the market and it is the demand that needs to be explained. As Brague notes, translations are made because someone feels that a certain text contains information that people need. The real intellectual revolution in Europe began well before the wave of translations in Toledo and elsewhere. This was demonstrated by the American jurist Harold J. Berman in his important 1983 book Law and Revolution. The efforts of the Catholic Church to make a new system of law required refined tools, which meant that the West sought out Aristotle's and other Greek work on logic and philosophy.

The "Papal Revolution" starting in the eleventh century was an effort to apply ancient Greek methods of logic to the remnants of Roman law dating back to Late Antiquity and the reforms of the active Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great. Justinian's revision of existing Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) was compiled in Latin in the 530s AD and later influenced medieval Canon Law. While they did utilize Roman law and Greek logic, medieval Western scholars through their intellectual efforts created a new synthesis which had not existed in Antiquity. Prominent among them was the twelfth century Italian legal scholar
Gratian, a monk who taught in Bologna. His great work, commonly known as the Decretum, appeared around 1140 as a synthesis of church law. Harold J. Berman writes in his book Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, page 225-226:

"Every person in Western Christendom lived under both canon law and one or more secular legal systems. The pluralism of legal systems within a common legal order was an essential element of the structure of each system. Because none of the coexisting legal systems claimed to be all inclusive or omnicompetent, each had to develop constitutional standards for locating and limiting sovereignty, for allocating governmental powers within such sovereignty, and for determining the basic rights and duties of members… Like the developing English royal law of the same period, the canon law tended to be systematized more on the basis of procedure than of substantive rules. Yet after Gratian, canon law, unlike English royal law, was also a university discipline; professors took the rules and principles and theories of the cases into the classrooms and collected, analyzed, and harmonized them in their treatises."

With the papacy of the dynamic and assertive Gregory VII (1073-1085), the Roman Catholic Church entered the Investiture Struggle, a protracted and largely successful conflict with European monarchs over control of appointments, investitures, of Church officials. Edward Grant explains in his book
God and Reason in the Middle Ages, page 23-24:

"Gregory VII began the process that culminated in 1122 in the Concordat of Worms (during the reign of the French pope, Calixtus II [1119-1124]), whereby the Holy Roman Emperor agreed to give up spiritual investiture and allow free ecclesiastical elections. The process manifested by the Investiture Struggle has been appropriately called the Papal Revolution. Its most immediate consequence was that it freed the clergy from domination by secular authorities: emperors, kings, and feudal nobility. With control over its own clergy, the papacy became an awesome, centralized, bureaucratic powerhouse, an institution in which literacy, a formidable tool in the Middle Ages, was concentrated. The Papal Revolution had major political, economic, social, and cultural consequences. With regard to the cultural and intellectual consequences, it 'may be viewed as a motive force in the creation of the first European universities, in the emergence of theology and jurisprudence and philosophy as systematic disciplines, in the creation of new literary and artistic styles, and in the development of a new consciousness.' . . . the papacy grew stronger and more formidable. It reached the pinnacle of its power more than a century later in the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216), perhaps the most powerful of all medieval popes."

The power of the secular states grew as well, but the separation between Church and state endured because the Papal Revolution had established a virtual parity between them. It was the internal dynamism of Europe during the High Middle Ages that drove the recovery of Classical learning. Here is The Legend of the Middle Ages by Rémi Brague, page 180:

"The European intellectual renaissance preceded the translations from the Arabic. The latter were not the cause, but the effect of that renaissance. Like all historical events, it had economic aspects (lands newly under cultivation, new agricultural techniques) and social aspects (the rise of free cities). On the level of intellectual life, it can be understood as arising from a movement that began in the eleventh century, probably launched by the Gregorian reform of the Church. . . . That conflict bears witness to a reorientation of Christianity toward a transformation of the temporal world, up to that point more or less left to its own devices, with the Church taking refuge in an apocalyptical attitude that said since the world was about to end, there was little need to transform it. The Church's effort to become an autonomous entity by drawing up a law that would be exclusive to it -- Canon Law -- prompted an intense need for intellectual tools. More refined concepts were called for than those available at the time. Hence the
Rémi Brague is a highly competent scholar and I can easily recommend his works to those who have a serious interest in studying these subjects. I will conclude by adding some other books that people can read. About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by
Robert Spencer. Bat Ye'or's books are groundbreaking and important. The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom should be considered required reading for all those who are interested in Islam. It is the best and most complete book currently available on the subject in English, possibly in any language. Ibn Warraq's books are excellent, starting with Leaving Islam. Understanding Muhammad by the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina is worth reading, as areDefeating Jihad by Serge Trifkovic and A God Who Hates by Wafa Sultan. For Western and European readers especially I could add my own book Defeating Eurabia.

For books about the history of science, I recommend everything written by Edward Grant.
The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg is good, though slightly more politically correct than Grant when it comes to science in the Islamic world. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff is highly recommended. Huff's work is carefully researched and should be considered required reading for those who are interested in this subject. These books are easy to read for an educated, mainstream audience.

For books that are excellent, yet more specialized and slightly more challenging, I can recommend
Victor J. Katz for the history of mathematics and The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans for the history of pre-telescopic astronomy up to and including Kepler. Evans' book is extremely well researched and detailed, almost too much so on European and Middle Eastern astronomy, but contains virtually nothing on Chinese or Mayan astronomy. For a more global perspective, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North is good and not too difficult to read.



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