Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: Hubble, the mirror on the universe

Robin Kerrod and Carole Stott: Hubble, The Mirror on the Universe (Firefly Books Ltd, 2007), 181 pages and glossary, chronology of astronomical landmarks, index, lavishly illustrated.

          This is one of the most intelligent coffee table books around. The text is full of magnificent high definition images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Wisely, the authors let the images drive the narration, the text providing commentary.

           The level of science writing is quite surprising (one of the authors is an astronomer turned full time science writer). Rarely, if ever, have I seen such conciseness and clarity in the presentation of science fact and theory to a non-scientific audience. The authors achieve this without oversimplification or dumbing down - aside from one glaring dumb down (no one is perfect!) The text is pleasant and engaging. Quite an accomplishment given the tight, sparse text the book's format demands! The authors deserve praise. In particular, I found their explanation of the confusing Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram of stellar types about the most lucid I've ever seen. (Even I understood it!)

            The quality of detail in the photos is truly stunning.

                          Andromeda galaxy, our closest galactic neighbor at a
                          distance of 2 million or so light years

                       I actually found it hard at times not to see the photos as works of art. As they say, the proof is in the pudding: I posted some Hubble photos on FaceBook friends' walls and later discovered some of these photos were incorporated into their private album photos. So others see the "artful" quality of these magnificent photos also..

                    For the curious of nature,  contemplating the Hubble photos gives a sense of touching some philosophical foundation of reality. Many of the most interesting and stunning photos show processes of transition or transformation: the death of stars or their collective birth in stellar nurseries. One is privileged to peer into the very crucibles of Being and Becoming..

                          Curiously, in the weeks after reading, I found this book of images stimulating all sorts of philosophical questions and reflections. There is something odd or ironic or curious in the book's sheer beauty. Today, with all the negativity in the world we tend to focus powerlessly on the dangers posed by science and technology. In Hubble we see modern science and technology in one of their more redeeming aspects: revealing Truth and Beauty (almost in a Platonic sense. He, too, was an early cosmologist..) Curious, too, that a being as capable of stupid mayhem as homo sapiens / demens can also be the revealer, contemplator and wonderer of Nature's splendor. Strange Universe ours! - the site of so much horror is also full to brimming with Glory and Wonder.

                      On the whole, it is quite hard fault this book aside from it's fair share of clutzy errors and typos (my favorite: a short biographical piece on the early life of Astronomer Edwin Hubble, repeated in two places). For a rating, let's give it a 9 or 9 1/2 on 10. It's that good!

 Edwin Hubble: American astronomer, 1881-1953, discovered the Big Bang Expansion of the universe from a unique point of time and space. Despite the passage of eight decades, the "Hubble Bubble" is still the dominant cosmological model studied in university Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology courses.

                  For a collection of spectacular images from the Hubble Telescope with description, see
spectacular Hubble images

                          Eta Carinae: unstable binary star on the verge of exploding
                          as a super- or hypernova


                          Below is the gigantic Pinwheel Galaxy. This giant spiral galaxy is 95,000 light years across, meaning that a ray of light traveling at 186,000 miles per second would take nearly a thousand centuries to span it. It is located in the constellation Ursa Major at an even more mind boggling distance of 25 million light years. Since it takes this long for light to travel from the galaxy to our eyes, we are seeing it as existed 25 million years ago. Talk about time travel..

For the official Hubble Telescope site with full access to photo collection:

A deep field image of the expanding universe: galaxies as grains of sand. Defenitely worth viewing. William Blake: "to see a World in a grain of sand, and Heaven in a wild flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour."

                A delicate, exquisite spiral galaxy NGC 3370 in the constellation Leo

The Tiger by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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