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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Review of Arthur Koestler's "The Sleepwalkers"

It has been many years since I have picked up the book "The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe". It was given to me by a very good friend as a gift while I was living in London. Recently, I had the chance to revisit this fiendishly addictive book originally printed in 1959. Koestler focuses on man's changing perception and vision of the cosmology, or large scale properties of the universe, around him. This daunting task is expressed with a passion few authors possess. Koestler writes as if each individual subject matter is very personal to him and puts you in the driver's seat.

Born in 1905, Arthur Koestler spent most his life as a foreign correspondent. He has written several novels about the human condition, and states that his scientific writings are an extension and completion of these observations.

Koestler traces the first sign of awareness of the greater universe to the Babylonians over 3000 years ago and takes the reader on a wild trip through time and space to the time of Newton. Reading about the Hellenistic world, the reader is pulled into the mindset and lives of such well known figures as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, but is sure to include just as important, if less known, free thinkers. Koestler drags the reader through a thorough analysis of Babylon, Egypt, Greece with ease and interest. Of course, more modern greats such as Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo are also given equal weight.

It does not matter which era Koestler writes about, his individual stylistic blend of science, mythology, religion and daily life is as refreshing as it is intriguing. It is through this blend that history and the human condition, the search for reason and order out of chaos, comes to life.

What really intrigues me about the way Koestler writes is his flair for dreaming, yet sticking to science. You truly feel as if you could understand, not just these great astronomers and astrologers, but also empathize with the general public of the day. You begin to understand not just the principals theories and point of view, but also the echo of the age in which they were born and lived. "Sleepwalkers" also give a unique perception to the reader of what the astrology of the day actually meant and how it was used in various significant times throughout history.

Where would we be today if no one ever thought past survival? Would we still believe that the earth was a disc sitting on top of a pillar? One thing is for certain, Koestler has mastered the blending of Humanities with Science. I wonder what he would say if he added the chapters from Newton onward? Perhaps perception is best left to be analyzed in hindsight.

We can add to our knowledge, but we cannot subtract from it. - Arthur Koestler

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