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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).


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Review by Andrew May

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