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Hubble Legacy – Jim Bell ***

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble space telescope, so this is a timely book. I was really looking forward to reading it, but I was disappointed when I did. Not everyone will share that disappointment – someone who primarily associates Hubble with ‘pretty pictures’, and has little interest in the science and technology behind them, may well love what Jim Bell has done. It’s the archetypal coffee-table book – lavishly illustrated, with stunning colour photographs filling every other page, alongside text that is high on poetic adjectives and low on technical facts and figures.

I’m sure Bell has done a good job of producing the kind of book that he (and/or his publishers) wanted, but from the popular science point of view – which is what this review site is about – it doesn’t do justice to the Hubble telescope or the scientists who work on it. By adopting a picture-driven format, there’s an in-built bias towards photogenic sights like nebulae and galaxies – at the expense of the more cutting-edge science Hubble has been involved with, such as the deep-field images, the discovery of dark energy or the spectroscopic probing of exoplanet atmospheres. Arguably it’s things like these that constitute Hubble’s real ‘legacy’ – yet Bell doesn’t discuss them in enough detail to give the reader an understanding of their scientific importance and consequences.

There are other aspects of ‘Hubble’s legacy’ the book barely even touches on, such as the way it’s raised the profile of astrophysics within the scientific community, and of astronomy – and science in general – among the public at large. A whole generation of scientists has grown up with Hubble as one of their major inspirations. And of course this book will play its part in that process of inspiration – but it won’t give you any profound insights.

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Review by Andrew May


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