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In the literary tradition of Dava Sobel’s best-selling Longitude, Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos traces the history of the most daunting challenge in all of observational astronomy: to measure the distance to a star. Here is a tale that winds its way across the centuries, from the first halting attempts of the ancient Greeks until the 1830s, when three astronomers, armed with the best telescopes of the age, raced to scale this astronomical Everest.


Against a sweeping backdrop of kidnapping, dramatic rescue, swordplay, madness, and bitter rivalry, Parallax brings to life the heroes and heroines of this epic pursuit of the cosmic third-dimension. Peer over the shoulders of astronomers as they investigate the heavens and share in their most private moments of joy and desperation. Parallax is an unforgettable tale that illuminates the distinctly human side of science.


​Dover Publications / 316 pages / 2013

Henry Holt & Co./ 314 pages / 2002

Originally published by W. H. Freeman /314 pages/ 2001





• Parallax is a superb book. Hirshfeld is hugely talented at bringing to life the story's cast of complicated characters. This deserves to be a bestseller.

  — New Scientist magazine


• Compelling? Try kidnapping, mudslinging and despair, all in the name of the stars. With clear explanations and human stories, Parallax rekindles our childhood wonder at the stars.

  Kansas City Star


• A tale of science at its best. –

  — Chet Raymo, Boston Globe


• Astronomy is a foundation stone in our self-image as a species, and Parallax does an outstanding job showing us how that stone was laid.

  San Francisco Bay Guardian


• An accessible and charming history of how we know what we know about our place among the stars.

  Providence Journal


• Hirshfeld presents an enthralling, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of these heroic stargazers.

  Science News


• Parallax is one of those texts that provide the type of enjoyment that people like to share. … It’s not just a story about science; it’s a story of a species coming to understand itself.

  — Sky & Telescope


• This comprehensive work, which quotes everyone from Mark Twain to Albert Einstein, … will appeal to astronomy buffs and curious readers alike. … [A]n adventure story, leaving readers with the same satisfaction as a favorite college course by a gifted professor.

  Astronomy magazine


• Hirshfeld's engaging chronicle of a seminal scientific discovery will enrich the hours you'll spend focused on his pages and add new wonder to your appreciation of the heavens.

  A Common Reader


• A delightful history of a crucial advance in knowledge.

  — Booklist


• Some day, interstellar travelers will remember the stars of Hirshfeld’s book … the way geographers honor John Harrison, the man who first determined longitude.

  Publisher’s Weekly


• An easy-to-read book that explains technical information at a level that can be understood by any reader. … For anyone who enjoys science and history.



• One of the great stories of scientific history.

  David H. Levy, former Science Editor, Parade magazine


• Incorporates the best aspects of a good detective story. There is political intrigue, there is deception (mostly of the “self-” variety) and there is heroic failure.

  Astronomy and Geophysics,  Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society


 • Alan Hirshfeld has written an engrossing book full of surprises which sweeps broadly across history’s pages and tells the story well. A great read about interesting people on a fascinating quest.

  Night Sky Newsletter


• A well-written, authoritative account of attempts to measure how far away the stars are. … Hirshfeld is a leading astronomer in his own right, with an enthusiasm reminiscent of Carl Sagan.

  Decision Line magazine


• With this highly readable and cosmically accessible book, Alan Hirshfeld has done for the measurement of the cosmos what Dava Sobel did for the measurement of longitude. Readers will never again look into the night sky the same way.

  Michael Shermer, Publisher, Skeptic magazine, author of Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science


• How large is the starry universe?  Alan Hirshfeld’s engaging account first introduces the long and challenging search to plumb the distances to the stars, and then his narrative moves to a satisfying climax as the exciting race to find stellar parallax heats up.  It’s a thrilling detective story!

  — Owen Gingerich, Research Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics


• I thoroughly enjoyed reading this excellent book. It is an admirable account, and I’m sure it will be of great value to many readers.

  — Patrick Moore, former host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night


• Alan Hirshfeld has done a magnificent job in telling the story of the race to measure the cosmos. His perspective, in keeping with the best tradition of astronomical history, provides rich insight into the progress and personalities of those who push technology along its cutting edge.

  — Leif J. Robinson, former Editor, Sky & Telescope magazine


• In Parallax, Alan W. Hirshfeld weaves a colorful thread through two thousand years of our noble quest to discover our place among the stars. Along the way, through Hirshfeld's engaging narrative, you greet dozens of unforgettable philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists who committed their lives to this quest and who, by the book's end, you are convinced you've known for your entire life. 

  — Neil de Grasse Tyson, Director, Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History




Michael Faraday was the greatest experimental scientist the world has ever seen. Raised in poverty in 19th-century London and trained as a bookbinder, Faraday rose through the ranks of the scientific elite at a time when science was restricted to the wealthy or well-connected. During a career that spanned more than four decades, Faraday invented the electric generator and motor; made important advances in chemistry, optics, geology, cryogenics, and metallurgy; pressed for a scientifically literate public years before science was deemed worthy of common study; manned the barricades against superstition and pseudoscience; and developed theories about space, force, and light that Einstein called the “greatest alteration … in our conception of the structure of reality since the foundation of theoretical physics by Newton.”


Friend of Charles Dickens and inspiration to Thomas Edison, Faraday speaks to us today through the flowing prose of his letters and journals, with timeless advice about life, love, loss and the practice of science. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday is an intimate portrait of an icon of science whose momentous contributions helped shape the modern world.



​Bloomsbury USA / 258 pages / 2006

Available in Kindle ( edition






[Faraday’s] up-by-the-bootstraps story tugs at the heartstrings, while his adherence to the experimental method engages the intellect. … A vibrant portrayal that emphasizes Faraday's qualities of wonder, acuity, and diligence, which propelled him to greatness.

  — Booklist


In an elegantly written biography, Hirshfeld, winner of a Templeton Foundation prize for an essay on Faraday, captures the scientist's rough-and-tumble times, and most readers will be able to follow his clear descriptions of Faraday's achievements.

  — Publisher's Weekly


As Alan Hirshfeld’s sparkling new biography makes clear, Faraday’s influence stemmed not from learning or wealth, but from a rich imagination, a brilliance at experimentation, and an openness of character.

  — Natural History


A masterpiece of concision and clarity that brims with life.

  — The (U.K.) Times Higher Education Supplement


Faraday finally has the biography he deserves. In The Electric Life of Michael Faraday, Alan Hirshfeld illuminates, with surpassing grace and a playful spirit, the life and work of the physicist who pioneered the study of magnetism and electricity and laid the foundations for the modern electrical age.

  — Los Angeles Weekly


If Shakespeare illuminates the human condition, Faraday opens our eyes to the physical universe.

  — American Journal of Physics


Hirshfeld writes gracefully and feelingly, turning biography into an engaging narrative that deepens the reader's understanding and affection for one of the pillars of modern science.

  — Providence Journal


The book piques the reader's interest at the depth and expanse of the scientific problems Faraday grappled with, and in most cases, elegantly resolved.

  — California Literary Review


In reading Hirshfeld’s biography, you will learn about the travails and accomplishments of  a most extraordinary person. … His book fills a long-lingering void on the bookshelf of scientific biography.

  — The Physics Teacher


As a formulator of the modern scientific method and an exemplary investigator, [Faraday] stood in the forefront of a distinguished line that led from benighted alchemy to technological innovations like BlackBerries and iPods. The author takes evident pleasure in recounting his subject's scientific contributions.

  — Kirkus Reviews


Hirshfeld's award-winning writing style makes the book approachable to scientists and nonscientists alike.

  — Physics Today


Hirshfeld … paints a fascinating picture of the “scientific” class system in early 19th-century London. Giving dimension to these early experimenters, his book will engage both general readers and the more scientifically minded.

  — Library Journal


Throughout the book, Hirshfeld uses Faraday's own words, from his extensive journal entries and letters, to flesh out the portrait of a successful yet humble 19th-century scientist.

  — Science News


In this elegantly written biography, Alan Hirshfeld, winner of a Templeton Foundation prize for an essay on Faraday, and himself a professor of physics, beautifully elucidates the science of electromagnetism for which Faraday is chiefly known.

  — Education World


An inspiring look into the life of one of the most famous scientists who ever lived. In this beautifully written adventure story, Hirshfeld gives us an insight into what a scientist's life was like two centuries ago.

  — David H. Levy, former Science Editor, Parade


A terrific book on Michael Faraday, the early-nineteenth-century experimentalist who as much as anyone can be called the Father or the Electrical Age. … Hirshfeld tells the story brilliantly.

  — Chet Raymo, Science Musings blog


Hirshfeld's scholarly analysis of how a lowly book binder became an iconic researcher is an inspiration to anyone determined to follow their dream.

  — Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God


The infamous leap from the bathtub, the inspirational cry “Eureka!” (I have found it!). This is the Archimedes of legend, grasping the key principles of buoyancy that govern the flotation of everything from boats to balloons. Archimedes helped shape the development of mathematics and science, from the value of pi to the size of the universe. His renown during his lifetime swelled to mythic proportions after he applied a web of pulleys and ropes to single-handedly launch a ship. When mighty Roman legions attacked his home city of Syracuse in 213 B.C., Archimedes unleashed fearsome machines of war that held them at bay for almost two years. Eureka Man brings to life both the genius of Archimedes and the drama and complexity of his ancient world, when civilization and the exploration of nature were at formative stages. Here, too, is the remarkable saga of the Archimedes Palimpsest—the long-lost manuscript rediscovered in the 20th century that reveals Archimedes’ working methods. Speaking to us across the centuries, the manuscript is a vivid reminder that Archimedes’ cumulative record of accomplishment places him among the exalted ranks of scientists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.


​Bloomsbury USA / 256 pages / 2009

Available in ebook edition




“Thoroughly enjoyable look at the tumultuous life and resounding influence of a genius of antiquity. Hirshfeld writes clearly and with enthusiasm, navigating even the occasional dense mathematical concept with easy-to-understand language and accompanying diagrams.”

  — Kirkus Reviews


“Hirshfeld explains Archimedes's mathematical achievements, from calculating pi to developing the beginnings of calculus, and traces the survival of key copies of his work through history as poetically as if they were travellers sailing to port over a stormy sea. … A charming introduction to the life and legacy of an extraordinary man.”

  — New Scientist


“Although you may not have ever thought you needed to read a book about Archimedes, this book might leave you wondering how you got through life thus far without reading one. In this, lies Hirshfeld’s rare talent. And if you have been looking for such a book, this one should have you leaping from your bathtub and heading for the door, proclaiming "Eureka – I have found it.”

  — Metro West Daily News


“Hirshfeld offers a lively look at the work underlying Archimedes’ renown. Science fans will find this a quick read, and readers interested in the transmission of ancient manuscripts will be fascinated by Hirshfeld’s account of the Archimedes Palimpsest.”

  — Publisher’s Weekly


“Confirms the facility for popular science that Hirshfeld displayed in Parallax and The Electric Life of Michael Faraday”

  — Booklist


“Alan Hirshfeld has given us a gripping biography of Archimedes, one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Even more exciting, he shows us how scholars resurrect from obscurity a person who has been dead for 2200 years, piecing together a dramatic life from fragments of remembrance.”

  — Chet Raymo, author of Walking Zero and 365 Starry Nights


“Archimedes was a Newton, Edison, General Patton, and Einstein, all rolled into one: the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Alan Hirshfeld provides both a delightful romp through this great man's mathematical proofs and a thrilling tale of the centuries-long search for Archimedes' greatest manuscript.  We are introduced to a genius well worth knowing.”

  — Marcia Bartusiak, author of The Day We Found the Universe and adjunct professor of science writing at MIT


“Alan Hirshfeld has merged storytelling and science in a wonderful book that even includes a modern discovery with twists and turns of intrigue.”

  — Joy Hakim, author of The Story of Science and The History of US


Through a series of twenty modestly mathematical, paper-and-pencil activities, review the epic advancement of astronomical thought, from the rudimentary observations of prehistoric skywatchers to the development of modern astrophysics in the 20th century. The activities require no specialized training, equipment, or materials beyond a pencil, straightedge, and standard calculator. They are designed for use on an individual basis or in classrooms of any size, and are an easy way to introduce active-learning into the teaching of astronomy. The necessary mathematical background is introduced on an as-needed basis for every activity. This learning-by-doing approach is sure to engage anyone with an interest in how astronomers came to know as much as they do about the universe.


​Jones & Bartlett/ 120 pages / 2nd edition, 2019

Available in paperback edition



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