top of page




How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics

Discovered the Modern Universe



Discover magazine “Top 5 Summer Read”

Scientific American/FSG “Favorite Science Books of 2014”

NBC News “Top Science and Tech Books of 2014”

Kirkus Reviews "Best Science and Nature Books of 2014"

Nature magazine Books & Arts blog "Top 20 Reads of 2014"

Finalist, 2016 Boston Authors Club Julia Ward Howe Award in Nonfiction





    In 1929, Edwin Hubble announced the greatest discovery in the history of astronomy since Galileo  turned his telescope to the heavens. The galaxies, previously believed to float serenely in the void, are in fact hurtling apart at incredible speed: the universe is expanding. This stunning discovery was the culmination of a decades-long arc of scientific and technical advancement. In its shadow lies the untold, inspirational backstory of the nineteenth-century amateur astronomers, inventors, and dreamers behind the birth of modern astronomy.


Bellevue Literary Press / 400 pages /  101 illus. / July 2014

Trade Paperback Original ISBN: 978-1-934137-78-9

eBook ISBN: 978-1-934137-79-6

Reviews of Starlight Detectives


Starlight Detectives is just the sort of richly veined book I love to read—full of scientific history and discoveries, peopled by real heroes and rogues, and told with absolute authority. Alan Hirshfeld’s wide, deep knowledge of astronomy arises not only from the most careful scholarship, but also from the years he’s spent at the telescope, posing his own questions to the stars.

  — DAVA SOBEL, author of The Glass Universe and Longitude


Beautifully written, Starlight Detectives reminds us how the wonders of the modern universe would never have been possible without the ingenious advances made by pioneering scientists in the nineteenth century. They were the ones who first learned how to read the messages hidden within a star’s radiations. With his poetic eye on the nighttime sky, Alan Hirshfeld engagingly shows how science arrived, step by step, at its revolutionary discovery that we live in but one galaxy amid multitudes flying outward in an expanding universe. A must-read for astronomy and history of science aficionados alike.

  — MARCIA BARTUSIAK, author of The Day We Found the Universe and Archives of the Universe



Hirshfeld tells this climactic discovery of the expanding universe with great verve and sweep, as befits a story whose scope, characters ans import leave most fiction far behind.

  — Wall Street Journal



A masterful balance of science, history and rich narrative.

  — Discover magazine (“Top 5 Summer Read”)



From 1850 to 1930, a handful of technological adepts transformed astronomy. That race to see deep space is told with palpable relish by physicist Alan Hirshfeld.

  — Nature



Hirshfeld chronicles the radical changes in our conception of the cosmos that have accompanied the advent of modern astronomy over the past century and a half. Recommended.

  — Scientific American ("Recommended" feature review)



A delightful, detailed chronicle of great men (and a rare woman) whose fascination with the night sky and the technology necessary to study it led to today’s dramatic discoveries.

  Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)



Alan Hirshfeld’s wonderful Starlight Detectives is a tour-de-force synthesis of the historic and scientific factors relating 19th century photography, astronomy, and spectroscopy. … Hirshfeld’s writing style brings the 19th century back to life and provides a rich tapestry of astronomical history.

 — American Journal of Physics



A well-written and enjoyable title for astronomers—professional and amateur alike—as well as science history fans.

  Library Journal



An enormously enlightening and entertaining book!

  The Observatory

Far from a dry scientific text, the book contains prose that is light even when didactic, engaging in its personification of these unjustly forgotten astronomers as determined, obsessed, stalwart, and sometimes just plain strange. Every researcher presented in this book is as lively in the text as if they were still personally scouring the heavens.

  Foreword Reviews



Tales of pioneering skywatchers and their discoveries in the 19th century show how modern astronomy was born.

 — Science News



Hirshfeld documents how the practice of astronomy changed between 1840 and 1940 thanks to innovative pioneers whose efforts made it possible to capture and preserve otherwise faint and fleeting images, and to decipher the cryptographic messages found in the light of celestial bodies. His riveting narrative brings to life their challenges, failures, and successes. It will captivate all who have observed the night sky.

  — BARBARA J. BECKER, author of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy



Writing this book would ideally require an author with an extensive knowledge of astronomy, including astronomical instruments, a deep understanding of the ways of thought of astronomers, a broad range of historical knowledge, and an exceptional skill at making astronomical ideas clear and engaging. Alan Hirshfeld possesses all of these skills. His Starlight Detectives is remarkable.

  — MICHAEL C. CROWE, author of The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900



A thrilling historical account of the rise of astrophysics, the early years of astronomical photography and spectroscopy, and the innovations that transformed the astronomical telescope in the nineteenth century. Alan Hirshfeld’s thoroughly researched narrative is accessible, entertaining, and scholarly, and includes many pioneers who have been overlooked until now. I greatly admire this outstanding contribution to the history of astronomy.

  — SIMON MITTON, co-author of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe and author of Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science

News: Click here to read about my latest book, Introduction to Stars and Planets: An activities-based exploration.

"An excellent primer for early-years undergraduates, this book contains a large number of short chapters on the Sun, stars, and planets, each followed by a number of exercises in the form of worksheets for the student. It could reasonably be used by individual students (especially in the current covid crisis) or by teachers to supplement their lessons." – The Observatory, June 2021

bottom of page