Press Release

Historian of Chinese Astronomy Wins Osterbrock Book Prize

By SpaceRef Editor
November 7, 2010
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The Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has awarded its 2011 Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize to Nathan Sivin for his landmark volume “Granting the Seasons: The Chinese Astronomical Reform of 1280, With a Study of Its Many Dimensions and an Annotated Translation of Its Records.” Sivin is Professor of Chinese Culture and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania.

HAD’s Osterbrock prize is a new biennial award that recognizes the authors of the book judged to best advance the field of the history of astronomy or to bring history of astronomy to light. Sivin is the first recipient of the prize. Sara J. Schechner of Harvard University, chair of the HAD Prize Committee, will present Sivin with a check and certificate on January 10, 2011, at a HAD session of the 217th AAS meeting in Seattle, Washington, after which Sivin will give his Osterbrock prize lecture, “Astronomy with a Difference: China.”

Published in 2009 by Springer, Sivin’s book explores the most important and sophisticated Chinese astronomical treatise: the 13th-century “Season Granting System.” It contained new methods for generating annual almanacs. It took its name from the ritual of the emperor’s bestowing these almanacs (and thus the seasons) on his people each year. This was part of his duty to maintain harmony between the cosmos and the state.

“I began work on the book in the 1970s,” says Sivin, who was then at MIT, where he founded the Science, Technology and Society Program. He continued his studies of the “Season Granting System” after moving to the University of Pennsylvania in 1977; he formally retired in 2006 but has continued his research and writing. “I gradually came to realize that to understand the technical aspects of the project it was essential to understand its historic, political, economic, personal, and intellectual dimensions,” says Sivin. “Its large scale and lavish funding are remarkable compared with the limited circumstances of innovative European astronomy before modern times. Since most historians of mathematical astronomy are unaware of how rich and well explored the Chinese tradition is, I am delighted at the opportunity to introduce it at the AAS/HAD meeting.”

“Sivin’s work is a monumental weaving of many historical threads and a study of the social and scientific fabric they create,” says Schechner. “This book will be a standard reference on Chinese astronomy and a starting point for many further studies in astronomy, society, and history. Moreover, Sivin throws down a gauntlet to Western and Eurocentric scholars, urging them to pay more attention to Indian, Muslim, Asian, and non-European traditions in astronomy and to consider their role in the formulation of Western modern science.”

The Seattle AAS meeting will be Sivin’s first. “I am not a historian of astronomy,” he says, “but a generalist who has investigated all of the Chinese sciences and every period of Chinese history. Actually I was astonished to hear that ‘Granting the Seasons’ had won the Osterbrock Book Prize, since I had not even come across a review of the volume and thought it had largely gone unnoticed!”

The Osterbrock Book Prize is named in memory of Donald E. Osterbrock (1924-2007), a long-time HAD member, a contributor to nearly every HAD meeting, HAD chair from 1987 to 1989, and the recipient of HAD’s highest honor, the LeRoy E. Doggett Prize for Historical Astronomy, in 2002. Osterbrock was Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former Director of the Lick Observatory.

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Note to Editors: Nathan Sivin may be reached by phone at +1 (215) 898-8400 or by e-mail at

More about Nathan Sivin: *

More about “Granting the Seasons”: * *

More about the AAS Historical Astronomy Division: *

More about the Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize for Historical Astronomy: *

More about Donald E. Osterbrock:



The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. Its membership of about 7,000 also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy. The mission of the AAS ( is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe. Among its many activities, the AAS publishes three of the leading peer-reviewed journals in the field: The Astrophysical Journal, The Astronomical Journal, and Astronomy Education Review.

The AAS Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) exists for the purpose of advancing interest in topics relating to the historical nature of astronomy: the history of astronomy, archaeoastronomy, and the application of historical records to modern astrophysical problems. HAD meetings provide a forum for discussion of recent developments in these areas. HAD assists the AAS in the commemoration of important historical anniversaries and in the archival preservation of current materials of importance to future historians of astronomy.

SpaceRef staff editor.