Astronomers who look out from the stars

A celebration of amateurs in an age of Hubble technology

Do you think about the stars when the sun is out? If so, you'll find your head in the heavens when your eyes are in this book.

And because Timothy Ferris writes knowledgeably and beautifully, "Seeing in the Dark" is also for anyone else who's the least curious about what we see when we look up at the night sky.

This is nothing new for Ferris. He's been illuminating in numerous books and articles, most notably, "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," and "The Whole Shebang."

As always, he brings the cosmic down to earth. This time, he explains the 20th-century revolution in spectroscopic analysis of very distant light from celestial bodies through the personal experiences of hundreds of astronomers, mostly amateurs.

Since most people don't know advanced calculus and quantum mechanics, the minibiographies provide a clear line of sight on the implications of these new discoveries.

The experience is like gazing at the Perseid meteor shower in summer. At first, the meteors are quite visible and just seeing them is enough. But then the imagination asks: Where did they come from? What are they made of? How did someone know they would arrive at just this time and in just this place out of the vastness of the cosmos?

Starting from planet Earth and extending out to the limits of the visible universe, Ferris launches into the night – from light cast by a full moon inside a drop of water on a Florida beach to photons that travel 14 billion light-years before imprinting in the midnight darkness of our skulls. He has us look through the eyes of others to feel at home in our universe with its more than 100 billion galaxies, each with its billions of stars.

Ferris records the role of amateur astronomers from the ancient Greeks, through the advent of the telescope in the 16th century, to the present. He establishes their past and present contributions to the field of astronomy in an age when images from the $12 billion orbiting Hubble telescope would predominate.

He marvels at insights gained from their individual and collective curiosity. Both together and apart, they represent the innate nature of human beings to ask why. Through them, he is able to explain, or at least intelligibly introduce, concepts as varied as the northern lights and black holes.

If Ferris makes one point, he makes it again and again: Don't overlook "the backyard stargazer who searches with a telescope for previously undiscovered asteroids and comets."

These thought adventurers gazing up at the night sky from backyards all over the world are "simultaneously engaged in two missions – a study of our origins and a reconnaissance that just might bear on our survival."

The stories, interests, and passions of these amateurs set "Seeing in the Dark," apart from the familiar orbit of astronomy texts. Such interesting lives create a gravitational pull that captivates anyone with a trace of scientific curiosity.

The band of characters Ferris fixes on queried the distant lights of the heavens. Educated or uneducated, rich or poor, whether they built their own telescope or had one built for them, these stargazers appear in their element, at the end of a telescope.

Amateurs like David Levy, Lubos Kohoutek, and Thomas Bopp have comets bearing their names as a reward for their efforts. Most labor in anonymity. Alan Hale (he put the Hale in the Hale-Bopp comet), and Edward Emerson Barnard (of Barnard's star fame) are amateurs who crossed over to become professional astronomers.

Born in Tennessee in 1857 and river-mud-poor Barnard literally dived into the Mississippi during the Civil War, foraging for food in sunken ships. Though he was illiterate and fatherless, his curiosity eventually led him heavenward where he made radical discoveries in the field of dark nebula.

This is not a book one sits down and reads from cover to cover. Best to take it chapter by chapter, as if savoring constellation by constellation a star-studded night in the high desert of New Mexico. You don't have to leave the backyard of your imagination to appreciate the star furnace in the Orion Nebula, the counterspinning movements in the Virgo cluster, or an asteroid passing in front of the planet Neptune.

Since Einstein, physics has become cosmology and cosmology has become physics. The rise of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, accompanied by a technological revolution in instrumentation, created information out of not only visible light, but also radio waves and microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet light, and X-ray and gamma rays. This opened humanity's eyes to a whole new universe.

When looking into the farthest, darkest, invisible regions of the cosmos, Ferris helps us do so from our own backyard, with others.

• Jim Bencivenga is the organizer of the Monitor's Web discussion groups.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Astronomers who look out from the stars
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today