Skip to main content

A Grand and Bold Thing – Ann Finkbeiner *****

Over the summer I tend to cut back on reading popular science so I can come back to the reviewing refreshed – and what a refreshing book to come back with. Ann Finkbeiner’s account of the making of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was wonderful – without doubt the best popular science book I’ve read so far in 2010.
It tells the story of the establishment of a scientific project – the mapping of a whole large section of sky in detail, providing digital information that would allow for pretty pictures like Google Sky, but more of interest to the scientists involved would enable comparison of galaxies, quasars, stars and more across a swathe of sky using digital data that including vast amounts of spectrographic analysis, images using different coloured filters and more. In effect, with the results of the survey – freely available to anyone – it’s possible for astronomers to work statistically, to make the sort of comparisons that ‘real’ scientists can do with repeated experiments, but has not been possible for astronomy before. As well as providing information that was expected, the Sloan was soon also making revelations that were never dreamed of when the survey was conceived. An astronomer could spend her entire career mining knowledge from the Sloan data without ever going near a telescope. Purists may wince at this – but in terms of our knowledge of the universe it is amazing.
However, as Finkbeiner shows us with excellent portraits of the people and processes involved, this huge success of a scientific project was no easy ride. There were difficult personalities and technical disasters. Mirrors cracked, one of the two telescopes proved totally unsuitable for the job (luckily they found a replacement in an existing telescope that wasn’t doing much as it was in a city and practically useless). To the outside observer who has any experience of project management is, frankly amateurism when it comes to getting the project together. There were lots of technical experts who knew exactly what they wanted – but no one making sure things happened at the right place in the right order to succeed.
It’s a dramatic story of a project that could easily have been cancelled, of remarkable feats of technology and ingenuity – and of the drive that makes people want to observe the universe. Finkbeiner really puts us in the heart of it. We live the experience with those astronomers and technicians. It’s a beautifully crafted book from an author who really knows how to tell a story.
Just three small gripes. Finkbeiner tends to switch between the past and present tense too often, sometimes mid-paragraph, and this can read a little oddly. The last couple of chapters seem a little rushed. They’ve done what they set out to do, now we’ll wrap it up – it feels slightly anti-climactic. And there are no pictures – none at all. I know what a pain it is to get illustrations together (and the poor author usually has to pay for them), but it seemed strange in a book so focussed on people and on producing images of the sky that we didn’t have photos of those people, the telescope or any of the output of the survey.
But these are minor niggles indeed. This is a brilliant book that captures the reality of getting a scientific project together. It’s hugely readable and highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…