Sunday, November 7, 2010

GBC Book Review: The Universe in a Mirror

Robert Zimmerman's The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and Visionaries Who Built It is a look at the minds and politics behind the Hubble Space Telescope written for those of use who are not rocket scientists. It begins with a quick look at how the atmosphere has always been a hindrance in the study of astronomy before moving into how the Hubble came to be.

Again, all photos are property of NASA and their "you can use it as long as you give credit" awesomeness.

I picked this book up as after seeing the Imax: Hubble and hoping to learn some more about the impact that Hubble has had on our understanding of the universe. On that front, I was sorely disappointed as the book skims over Hubble's contributions to our understanding. Truthfully, it's my own fault because the book very clearly states what it's about, I just didn't read it that closely. I did, however, garner a greater understanding of exactly how difficult it was to even get Hubble made in the first place.

I posted this picture before but an explanation is in order. To test the Deep Field Infrared, it was
decided to point Hubble at an 'empty' part of space, one that had no readings on any system ever used.
This is what Hubble was able to show us.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. There were parts I felt like I had to slog through usually when three new people were introduced within a paragraph of each other and I found I had to go back to try and remember who worked where on what with whom. I occasionally found that I was learning more about people's personal lives than I felt I need to for the purpose of the story, but it was also the intent of the author to show how pursuing the dream that would become Hubble destroyed more marriages, careers and lives than we will ever fully understand.

The book takes an incredible amount of data and condenses it into an easy 240 pages (with the afterword which was added to the paperback) and it was clear that the author had the support of pretty much everyone he was writing about as the majority of the non-universe pictures are listed as 'from the personal collection of...'. Zimmerman does a great job of showing the number of people who were instrumental but also at showing their own flaws and limitations. These were ordinary humans after all trying to do what many in their own field of study thought was impossible. He was also very good at showing all the errors which led up to the wonky lens being given the okay. It was fascinating to see how it all played out and when it came time for 'second light', I found myself feeling giddy knowing how well it was all going to turn out.

This picture of the Eta Carinae was taken at 'second light', the moment when the scientists would learn
if their plan to correct the flawed lens worked. Astronomers had know for hundreds of years that
Eta Carinae was dying. What they didn't know was why it didn't appear to respond like a regular Supernova.
This picture answered what 300 years of study could not.

If you have an interest in astronomy or the Hubble, this is a great book to read. In the end, it made me both laugh and cry which is not an easy feat for a science book. In the words of John Bahcall, one of the lead scientists, "[w]e all have a deep desire to know what exists out there. A desire so basic, so beautiful, so much fun, that it unites all mankind." This book is a fantastic 'thank you' to everyone who made it possible.

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