Decoding the Stars: A Biography of Angelo Secchi, Jesuit and Scientist


Author: Ileana Chinnici
Winner of the 2021 Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize for Historical Astronomy

In Decoding the Stars, Ileana Chinnici offers an account of the life of the Jesuit scientist Angelo Secchi (1818-1878). In addition to providing an invaluable account of Secchi’s life and work—something that has been sorely lacking in the English-language scholarship—this biography will be especially stimulating for those interested in the evolution of astrophysics as a discipline from the nineteenth century onward. Despite his eclecticism, reminiscent of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Secchi was in many ways a very modern scientist: open to innovation and cooperation, and a promoter of popularization and citizen science. Secchi also appears fully inserted in the cultural context of his time: he participated in philosophical and scientific debates, spread new theories and ideas, but also suffered the consequences of political events that marked those years and impacted on his life and activities.

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Ileana Chinnici is an astronomer at the INAF-Palermo Astronomical Observatory and works in the field of the history of astrophysics. She has published books and articles in international journals, exploring historical archives related to scientific projects and scientists of the nineteenth century.
“Excellent biography […] Historians of science, whatever their national origin, should become familiar with the achievements of Father Secchi.”
Naomi Pasachoff, Williams College. In: Metascience, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March 2020), pp. 77–80 (2020).

“[This] will undoubtedly be the standard work on this remarkable Jesuit astronomer.”
Wayne Orchiston, National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, and Centre for Astrophysics, University of Southern Queensland. In: Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 23, No. 1 (April 2020), pp. 227–228.

“This excellent book not only presents Secchi’s scientific contributions and his personality but also situates him in the fascinating mix of science, politics and society of the Italian late nineteenth century.”
Augustín Udías, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. In: Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2021), pp. 111–112.

Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J.
Nichi D’Amico
Ileana Chinnici
List of Illustrations

Introduction: A Century in Ferment

1 Secchi’s Early Life and Education: From Childhood to the Priesthood

2 The Experience of Exile: A Tragic Opportunity

3 Establishing the New Collegio Romano Observatory: An Observatory for “Physical Astronomy”

4 Advisor to the Papal States: Science in the Service of the Public

5 A Rising International Career: Travels, Achievements, and Recognition

6 Contributions to Astrophysics

7 A Crucial Political Change: New Risks and Missed Opportunities

8 A Society for a New Astronomy: Building a Network for Spectroscopic Research

9 A Controversial Personality: Secchi and the Scientific Debates of His Time

10 Secchi’s Final Years: Illness and Uncertainty

Conclusion: Secchi’s Scientific Legacy

All interested in the history of science, especially astronomy and astrophysics in the nineteenth century, institutes and academic libraries, specialists, post-graduate students, scientists and learned people with wide scientific interests.