The Hubble Wars – Eric J. Chaisson

Cover of The Hubble Wars

The Hubble Wars
Eric J. Chaisson
386 pages including index
published in 1994/1998

Having worked on a somewhat troubled project for the past few years, it’s a great comfort to know that even big science projects like the Hubble Space Telescope can suffer from similar problems. In Hubble’s case, bad project management and quality control meant it was only discovered after the space telescope had been launched that its main mirror had a serious flaw in its grinding which meant that it couldn’t focus properly. But that was only the most *ahem* visible of the Hubble project’s problems, as Eric J. Chaisson explains. And he should know, as he was a senior staff scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute when these problems occurred and hence had a first rank seat for them.

The Hubble Wars was originally published in 1994 and based on notes Chaisson made during Hubble’s commisioning period after launch, when the problems with the lens, as well as several others first cropped up. This then was largely written in the heat of the moment, without the benefit of hindsight, even if the edition I got out of the library was the updated 1998 one. This update was largely confined to a new foreword, an attempt to correct some of the misconceptions and hyberbole in the news coverage of Hubble discoveries. The rest of the book was largely left unchanged, though every now and then new developments are alluded to — and they’re not always well integrated. But that’s just a minor quibble. What remains is an important insight in how a big science project can go wrong, as it happened.

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Supercontinent – Ted Nield

Cover of supercontinent

Ted Nield
288 pages, including index
Published in 2007

I’ve read other good books on geology and the history of the Earth, notably Richard Fortey’s books, but this is the best one volume introduction to the idea of continental drift and the underlying dynamics driving it that I’ve seen. Nield is very good at explaining difficult concepts to a lay reader without simplifying them into incoherence. I took a gamble on Supercontinent when I saw it in the Amsterdam library just because Nield chose to introduce his subject with a short science fiction story about what would be left of us if aliens visited Earth 200 million years from now, when our current continents have all recombined again to form one Supercontinent. A catchy way to get my attention and fully justified by the rest of the book.

Supercontinent is both about the geological history of Earth as expressed through the ways continents have drifted apart, collided and fused together and broken up again and the history of the intellectual discovery of this history. As you might expect from the relative shortness of this book, barely 270 pages not counting index and notes, Nield provides only a broad overview, but he has an eye for the telling detail and manages to pack a lot of explanation into few words. For example, below is how he explains the recurring opening and closing of the “Atlantic Ocean” in the process called introversion and how this leaves parts of mountain chains on different sides of the ocean:

In other words, oceans can open and close, like a carpenter’s vice, more than once. Imagine that you open a vice, put the carpenter’s lunch (cold lasagne) into it and squeeze it tight. The lunch will ooze out and up, forming a mountain chain, which we shall call the Lasagnides. You then leave it until the lasagne has gone hard before opening the vice again. By now agents of erosion — mice — have scoured the once mighty Lasagnides back to bench level; but their roots, within the vice itself, remain. If you now reopen the vice to start the process again, some of hose olde Lasagnide remnants will stick to one jaw and some to the other/ but the vice reopens along the same basic line. That is how you get some parts of the same mountain chain in Europe and others in America.

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In Search of Planet Vulcan – Richard Baum and William Sheehan

Cover of In Search of Planet Vulcan

In Search of Planet Vulcan
Richard Baum & William Sheehan
310 pages including index
published in 1997

The classic idea of the universe was that it was geocentric: the Earth in the centre, with the planets, moon and the sun circling around it and the fixed stars as background. Over the centuries that central idea had to be modified with increasingly complex epicycles as the theory had to be adjusted to observational evidence. It was only in the sixteenth century that Copernicus, Kepler and Bruno challenged this Ptolemaic model and replaced it with the truth: that all the planets, including Earth revolved around the Sun. Copernicus was the first to propose this, Bruno would die at the stake for his advocacy but it was Kepler who figured out how the planets revolved and what governed their orbits. more than half a century later Isaac Newton formulated his laws of gravity, joining Kepler’s laws with more mundane events on Earth, finally providing a complete model of the workings of the Solar System. From then on, any planetary orbit could be calculated with the right observations and the use of Kepler’s and Newton’s laws.

except for one. The orbit of Mercury remained, as the subtitle of Baum and Sheehan’s book has it, “the ghost in Newton’s clockwork universe”. Time and again, no matter how carefully the observations were made and how intricate the calculations were, the two just would not line up. Even the best astronomers in the world, with the best observations could not make Mercury’s orbit confirm to what it should be according to Newtonian physics. It wasn’t until Einstein reformulated the laws of gravity that the reason why became clear. Newton’s laws break down near massive objects like the Sun and although “good enough” for most situations, Mercury’s orbit was just too close to the Sun and Newtonian physics just wasn’t accurate enough. Of course, until Einstein found the real answer, astronomers sought for other explenations for Mercury’s wrong orbit — and the most likely candidate was an undiscovered planet even closer to the Sun: Vulcan.

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The State of the Universe – Pedro G. Ferreira

Cover of The State of the Universe

The State of the Universe
Pedro G. Ferreira
320 pages including index
published in 2006

I felt the need to reacquaint myself with modern astrophysics as it has been far too long since I’ve read anything about it. Sure, I do watch The History Channel’s Universe series whever I catch it, but that doesn’t tell me much I don’t know already, while following the vast array of astronomy blogs out there is no real substitute, as they do assume a certain familiarity with the current state of the art. Long live the public library therefore, for providing quick access to what looks like exactly the book I need: The State of the Universe: a Cosmic Primer. Written by Pedro Ferreira, a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford, it’s meant as a layperson’s introduction to what astrophysics thinks the universe looks like and what makes it tick.

The State of the Universe is built up logically from first principles. Ferreira starts with a short overview of classical Ptolemaic cosmology, with the Sun revolving around the Earth and how it was succeeded by the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Gallileo. Over several chapters he then shows how our knowledge of the size and complexity of the universe expanded, from what was once thought to be no bigger than our Solar System, through an understanding of how big our Galaxy actually and finally to an appreciation of the idea that all those galaxy shaped nebulas are actually galaxies as well. Then he goes on to the other end of the scale and explains the physics of the universe: the fundamental forces that shape it (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak force), a quick sketch of the whole zoo of the particles that make up the matter and energy in it and how it all sits together. From the classic Big Bang idea of the evolution of the universe he finally moves on to the cutting edge of current physics, where it all gets a lot less clear what’s real and what’s just clever theorising.

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Rivers in Time – Peter D. Ward

Cover of Rivers in Time

Rivers in Time
Peter D. Ward
315 pages including index
published in 2000

Rivers of Time is a new edition of The End of Evolution, a book originally published in 1994, roughly around the same time as E. O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life, with which it overlaps to some point. Like that book, Rivers of Time mixes exploration of the Earth’s evolutionary past with concern for the
present, focussing on the historical three mega extinctions as well as the one currently under way. Unlike E. O. Wilson’s book however, this is not a call to arms. Ward is much more resigned to the great extinction than Wilson is.

Partially this may be because in Ward’s view, this great extinction has already happened, with the disappearance of the megafauna of Europe, North America, Australia and many parts of Asia and Africa during the last 15,000-20,000 years, coinciding with the rise of modern humanity. The extinctions still taking place now are just the aftermath of this. I’m not sure how much I agree with this, but at the very least it puts the current destruction of ecosystems in place like Brazil or Borneo into a new perspective, when you realise the same thing had already happened in Europe thousands of years ago.

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