Skip to main content

Cosmic Odyssey - Linda Schweizer *****

Based on its generic-sounding title, you might expect this to be a broad-ranging history of astrophysical concepts – and if you buy it on that basis you won’t be disappointed. From stellar evolution and the structure of galaxies to supermassive black holes, quasars and the expansion of the universe, Linda Schweizer shows – in admirably non-technical detail – how our understanding of the fundamental pillars of modern astronomy developed over several decades from a standing start.

In spite of that, this isn’t a generic history at all. It has a very specific remit, encapsulated in the subtitle: ‘How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe’. California’s Palomar Observatory is home to the ‘200-inch’ (5.1 metres – the diameter of the main mirror) Hale telescope, which was the premier instrument for optical astronomy from its inauguration in 1949 until the Hubble telescope became fully operational 45 years later. This was perhaps the most eventful and fast-moving period in the history of astrophysics, thanks in part to the power of the Hale telescope itself, coupled with the advent of complementary new techniques such as radio astronomy, and a general increase in support for space-related research around the world.

As the subtitle implies, the book describes the science from the point of view of the astronomers involved – not so much in traditional biographical style, but showing how they made one astonishing breakthrough after another by bouncing ideas off each other and following hunches. I’m not convinced that ‘intrepid’ is quite the right word, though. In a job where there’s no actual physical danger, I guess intrepid means not being afraid to follow up unpopular, potentially career-destroying theories. But only one of the protagonists, Halton Arp, really matches that description – and most of his wackier ideas turned out to be wrong.

On the other hand, the people who made the great discoveries, like quasars, weren’t really taking risks at all. The outlandishness was all in the data, not their interpretation of it. Even so, they still made their share of mistakes, such as when Allan Sandage over-enthusiastically proclaimed that every star-like object with a high UV-to-blue ratio was a quasar (actually most of them are just stars). In her preface, Schweizer describes the Palomar scientists as ‘eccentric yet inspiring’ – which wouldn’t have looked as good as ‘intrepid’ on the cover, but is probably closer to the truth.

The period covered – essentially the second half of the 20th century – is sufficiently recent that many of the key players are still alive, or were when Schweizer started collecting material for the book, so she was able to capture valuable recollections from people like Sandage and Arp before they were lost to history. For the same reason, the book will be something of a nostalgia trip for older readers, who may remember some of the discoveries from the time they were made.

In my own case, the book brought back vivid memories of my time as an astronomy postdoc in the 1980s, when I crossed paths with several of the characters mentioned – and I fully concur with Schweizer’s ‘eccentric yet inspiring’ sentiment. Alar Toomre, one of the main protagonists of her chapter on interacting galaxies, was name-checked in my first published paper for his ‘enthusiastic help in understanding the results’. That was a euphemistic way of saying he did all the hard work for me, in the longest private letter I’ve ever received – eight typewritten pages plus 16 pages of diagrams.

In all there are 12 thematically organised chapters, two of them on subjects I’ve got some professional knowledge of – galactic structure and dynamics – and others that I’m really no more knowledgeable about than a general reader, such as solar system physics or stellar nucleosynthesis. Viewed from either perspective, I found Schweizer’s style clear, intelligent and informative. I’d heartily recommend the book to anyone with an interest in astronomy that goes deeper than gazing at pretty pictures (of which this book has its share, though ironically most of them are credited to the Hubble rather than Palomar telescope).


Hardback:

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Quantum Menagerie - James Stone ***

This is a well-structured introduction to the mathematical basics of quantum mechanics, highly recommended for the right readers. Stone wisely, in terms of introducing the physics, avoids a purely chronological approach, instead aiming to fit together a picture in the way that makes it easiest for readers to get their heads around, building mathematically through the book. Stone does a good, solid job of this. In the book's preface, he tells us 'Books on quantum mechanics come in two basic formats: popular science books and textbooks. By contrast, this book represents a middle way between these formats, combining the informal approach of popular science books with the mathematical rigour of introductory textbooks... The material in this book should be accessible to anyone with an understanding of basic calculus.' The approach and the resultant impact on its audience is interesting. Providing something in-between popular science and a textbook is an interesting concept, but

Fundamentals - Frank Wilczek ****

In keeping with the trend of having seven this or ten that (Carlo Rovelli has a lot to answer for), physicist Frank Wilzek sets out to give us 'ten keys to reality'. As Wilczek explains in his introduction, the aim is to explore two themes: abundance and seeing things differently, with a childlike curiosity and lack of preconceptions. The author also points out that he aims to offer an alternative to religious fundamentalism. As he notes, many of his scientific heroes were devout Christians, and he 'aims to transcend specific dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious'. In essence there are two things going on in this book. On the one hand, each of the ten main sections covers a fairly straightforward aspect of physics and cosmology, though not from the viewpoint of a physical theory so much as context such as space, time, natural laws and so on - in this, it will be familiar ground to anyone who has read a popular science physics primer. But the aspect that lifts Wilc

A Song for Molly - Jeremy Bernstein ***

This is quite probably the strangest popular science/maths book I have ever read. There have been a good few attempts to combine science writing with fiction, as A Song for Molly does. It's a great idea, but from the results I have seen so far, extremely difficult to do well. What Jeremy Bernstein does is different from anything I've seen before, and in some aspects works very well. Let's start with what I love about this book. Every now and then I have lunch with the varied collection of individuals who once made up the Lancaster University Christmas University Challenge team. We're a very different bunch, and the group includes brilliant raconteurs. The lunches are a delight, in part because of the way the conversation ranges far and wide. There is a similar joy in Bernstein's range of interests as his book skips from the ideas of Wittgenstein to the attempts to decipher Linear A/B, from Cantor's ideas on infinity to game theory. It really feels like sitting