Modern-Day Stargazing

Two astronomers offer telescopic views of the science of the universe

THE Hubble Space Telescope, now circling Earth, symbolizes the vast growth in astronomical knowledge since World War II. The telescope comes after the COBE satellite - the Cosmic Background Explorer - which is studying the microwave (radio) radiation left over from the birth of the universe. And later this year, another orbiting observatory to study the cosmos by gamma rays will join these instruments on orbit.

Until the late 1940s, astronomers had to make do with visible light. Now they view the universe with the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves at the low-frequency end to the high-frequency gamma rays.

By a happy publishing coincidence, two of the leading pioneers of this new astronomy have given us books that nicely complement each other.

Bernard Lovell, who built the University of Manchester's 250-foot radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Britain, traces the development of radio astronomy from an autobiographical perspective in ``Astronomer by Chance.''

Herbert Friedman, who helped bring X-ray astronomy to maturity, surveys the whole sweep of modern astronomy in ``The Astronomer's Universe.''

Friedman supplies the broad context of which radio astronomy is a part. Although his aim is to give a scientific overview, he spices this with vignettes from his own personal research experiences. This is a book for those who would like to sit down with one of the leading postwar researchers who could explain what the new astronomical knowledge is all about.

Lovell, on the other hand, gives us a highly personal, introspective view. It ranges from his boyhood discovery of an interest in physical science to the mature reflections of a distinguished scientist/research administrator emeritus. Here you find dimensions of the man not always evident in the 1950s to 1970s public image of the radio telescope builder.

Longtime reporters may remember him as a bureaucratic battler who fought for every inch of progress in building the telescope. Yet he also is an accomplished organist who serves his local church. His anecdotes of World War II research are a fascinating insight into the role science played in Britain's air war. They also recount the first awakening of his enduring dismay that science can be co-opted for destruction.

Lovell's monument, of course, is the great Jodrell Bank ``dish.'' It was one of the first of the civilian ``big science'' projects. As such, there were recurring struggles for official approvals and for funding. Lovell seemed almost constantly to have to deal with misunderstanding and opposition within the British establishment and, at times, confront a hostile press. The controversies gave a hard edge to his public image and some of the bitterness lingers in his account. Readers should be aware that there is more than one side to the history he recalls.

Yet these bureaucratic concerns were puny compared to the great issues with which Lovell says he has struggled all his adult life. Some of these involve the timeless questions of the origin and meaning of our existence. These lie beyond the competence of the sciences to answer. Indeed, some scientists turn them aside as being too metaphysical.

Of this attitude, Lovell says, ``I sometimes envy their ability to evade by neglect such a problem which can tear the individual's mind asunder.'' He explains that he, himself, feels ``as though I've driven into a great fog barrier where the familiar world has disappeared'' when dealing with questions inaccessible to scientific research.

But he adds, ``I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue.''

Then there are the moral questions of using our growing scientific knowledge for good and not for evil.

Lovell calls the simplistic belief in automatic material progress through science and engineering ``a tragic myth of our age.'' He observes that ``the quest for scientific understanding is very far from embracing the totality of human purpose.''

Friedman, whose aim is to give an overview of astronomy, deals sparsely with such issues. Yet they are not far beneath the surface. It is no accident that each of these perceptive scientists ends up expressing the same concern.

Friedman reviews our still-primitive efforts to search for life on other worlds and considers the possibility that the search may fail.

``If we conclude that our small life-supporting planet really is unique, will humanity resolve to avoid self-destruction, choosing instead to preserve our delicately balanced environment and to shun the ultimate folly of nuclear war?'' Friedman asks.

``The pursuit of good and evil are now linked in astronomy as in almost all science ... the fate of human civilization will depend on whether the rockets of the future carry the astronomer's telescope or a hydrogen bomb,'' says Lovell.

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