Star Maps, History, Artistry, and Cartography

by Nick Kanas, M.D., Springer-Praxis Books, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, ISBN 978-0-387-71668-8, paperback, 382 pp. incl. appendices, index, b&w and color illustrations

Nick Kanas spoke at the June 23rd meeting at Chabot Center in Oakland. At the upcoming Autry Center meeting those who missed that earlier meeting will have the pleasure of hearing CMS member Nick Kanas speak on his own personal passion – Celestial Cartography. His depth of knowledge is astounding. He admits to an interest going back 50 years to October 4, 1957. You may not remember that date immediately but if you are as old as some of us will recognize it as the date the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. Shortly thereafter Nick received a 6 cm refracting telescope and began his long journey into exploring the night sky.

In 1982 he and his wife Carolynn purchased their first two antiquarian constellation prints, both from Flamstead’s 1776 sky atlas. Their collection has expanded considerably from there. But Nick has not stopped at collecting. The bibliographies in this work show an astonishing grasp of the literature available for this subject.

This work will undoubtedly become a standard reference work for this study. Trying to satisfactorily cover 5000 years of evolution of any subject is a daunting task. Nick has carefully divided his book into chapters covering both chronological and regional topics. Thus it is possible to use the book like an encyclopedia rather than a continuing narrative. Each of the major characters is treated with a section outlining his special contributions and the life and times in which he lived.

The forward was written by our own Norman J. W. Thrower who confessed to me that he had read the entire text of this work three times. Since I’ve personally only had this work for a month I must confess to having read only portions of it thoroughly. What I have read has impressed me with Nick’s ability to explain a somewhat complex subject. Just trying to figure out whether the cartographer is trying to show a God’s eye view (from outside) or a geocentric view (looking up from earth) is an interesting exercise. Nick systematically points out what to look for. Then there is always the question of the fantastic imagination these people had. Most of us can look up and see the Big Dipper as a fairly representative description of those visible stars. Orion’s belt of three stars is also easy for us amateurs to spot. On the other hand, getting the surrounding 20 or 30 stars to look anything like a bearded Greek holding a club in one hand and more or less lifeless body of a lion in the other indicates to me that I’m not drinking the same stuff as the mapmaker for Samuel Leigh & Co.’s Urania Mirror (Figure 6.17). Those of us used to conventional maps with land territories may wonder about these guys but as it turns out, many of them were well known terrestrial mapmakers as well.

The section on the transition to non-pictorial star maps is interesting because it emphasizes the need to be able to plot more stars as the ability to find them advanced with more powerful telescopes. Today’s astronomers have infinitely more information to work with than the ancient Greeks. Yet there is still an amazing amount being discovered every day. NASA has a website,, where each day is displayed “The Astronomy Picture of the Day.” Fun to check out. The point is simply that mapping the stars is still evolving so we can expect the second edition of Nick’s book to be twice as big.

Levity aside, this is an extraordinary book at a very reasonable price by one of our own members who is a world class observer and a highly skilled writer. I’m sure you will enjoy reading it. Skip around through the book and enjoy the beautifully reproduced color plates and the five Appendixes providing organization and explanation to this complex subject. Well done, Nick. Your efforts will be appreciated for many years to come.

Reviewed by Bill Warren
From the Society’s December 2007 Newsletter

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