Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

the-universe-in-100-key-discoveries-by-giles-sparrowThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on astronomy: text and images complement each other perfectly. Even the solidness of the book was right. It’s a heavy book about heavy ideas, from the beginning of the universe to its possible endings, with everything astronomical in between.

And everything is astronomical, if it’s looked at right. The elements vital for life were cooked in stars before being blasted out by supernovae. We are star-stuff that has the unique privilege – so far as we know – of being able to understand stars.

Or trying to. This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there. And when mysteries are solved, they sometimes create new ones. Even the behaviour and composition of a celestial body as close as the Moon is still impossible for us to explain. But sometimes it’s easier at a distance: the interior of the earth can harder to study than galaxies millions of light years away, as I pointed out in “Heart of the Mother”.

In every case, however, understanding depends on mathematics. Astronomers have been building models of the heavens with shapes and numbers for millennia, but the models had to wait for two things to really become powerful: first, the invention of the telescope; second, the development of modern chemistry and physics. Whether or not there is life out there, celestial light is full of messages about the composition and movement of the stars and other bodies that generate it.

But visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and modern astronomy probes the universe at wavelengths far above and below it. The more data astronomers can gather, the more they can test the mathematical models they’ve built of the heavens. The best models make the most detailed predictions, inviting their own destruction by ugly facts. But when predictions fail, it sometimes means that the observations are faulty, not the models. Cosmological models predicted much more matter in the universe than we can see. Is the gap accounted for by so-called “dark matter”, which “simply doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiations at all”? (ch. 98, “Dark Matter”, pg. 396)

Dark matter is a strange concept; so is dark energy. Astronomy may get stranger still, but the cover of this book is a reminder that human beings inhabit two kinds of universe. One is the universe out there: matter and radiation, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae. The other is the universe in here, behind the eyes, between the ears and above the tongue. The cover of this book offers a vivid contrast between the swirling complexity and colour of a star-field and the sans-serif font of the title and author’s name. But the contrast is ironic too. The stars look complex and the font looks simple, but language is actually far more complex and difficult to understand than stars.

Consciousness may be far more complex still. In the end, is the value of science that it expands consciousness, offering new physical and mental sensations of discovery and understanding? The powerful and beautiful images and ideas in this book could only have been generated by science, because the universe is more inventive than we are. But without consciousness, the universe might as well not exist. Without language, we’d never be able to try and understand it. Then again, the universe seems to have invented language and consciousness too.

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Moon Observer's Guide by Peter GregoPhilip’s Moon Observer’s Guide, Peter Grego (Philip’s 2015)

If you ask someone to name the most important inventions in history, two will often be overlooked: the microscope and the telescope. You could say that one lowered the floor of the universe and the other raised the ceiling: we suddenly became aware of wonders that had previously been too small or too far away for us to see.

Practically speaking, the microscope might seem by far the more important, because it’s taught us so much about life on earth, not least our own. But the continued existence of humanity may actually depend on the telescope. Geologists have discovered that the earth has repeatedly been struck by asteroids; astronomers may be able to spot the next one before it hits. Otherwise we may follow the dinosaurs, trilobites, eurypterids and countless other once-flourishing groups into extinction.

If you want to see what asteroids and other large rocks can do to a celestial body, Mother Nature has kindly provided us with a giant memento mori: the Moon. The biggest scars there are visible with the naked eye, but it took the telescope to reveal quite what they looked like and quite how pock-marked the lunar surface is. As Peter Grego writes:

All the Moon’s ringed basins, ‘walled plains’ and the overwhelming majority of craters visible through the telescope were formed by asteroidal impact. […] Copernicus was blasted out of the lunar crust about 800 million years ago by an asteroid measuring up to 10 km across. The 29 km diameter crater Kepler, 500 km to the west of Copernicus, was formed at around the same time. (“Lunar geology and the Moon’s features”, pp. 13-4)

Grego knows a lot about the Moon and this book is the fruit of more than thirty years of selenoscopy, dating back to his first “systematic observations” in 1982:

Since that time, through patient observing and recording, the lunar landscape has become to me a broadly familiar place, yet always full of wonder. Today only a sliver of moon is visible, and the eastern lunar seas and their surrounding craters provide a visual delight until the Moon sinks into the haze above the city and its image dims, shimmers and degrades. (pg. 5)

The city was Birmingham back in 2002. Cities aren’t just noisy, dirty and harmful to wildlife. They also deprive us of one of the greatest sights in nature: the night sky. Light pollution is silent, tasteless and physically harmless, but it deserves much more attention from conservationists. The Moon can be big enough and bright enough not to be wholly drowned by it, but it’s lèse-majesté against the Queen of the Night all the same.

It also makes life much harder for amateur astronomers. Then again, perhaps that increases the rewards. And the Moon isn’t confined to the night sky, of course: you can observe it in full daylight using nothing more than binoculars. Serious observation demands a telescope, however, and Grego devotes a full section to what’s available. Inter alia, he himself has a “150mm f/8 achromatic refractor with digital camcorder setup with a zoom eyepiece for afocal video photography” (ch. 5, “Recording Your Observations”, pg. 144). Digital imaging and enhancement are now routine: modern technology can get “startling results from a seemingly mediocre video sequence” (pg. 146), sharpening and focusing blurred images.

But Grego and his fellow selenographers are still doing what Galileo, Thomas Harriot and other early astronomers did centuries ago: drawing and sketching the Moon. There’s a good practical reason to do this, as recent science-news has confirmed: “drawing pictures of information that needs to be remembered is a strong and reliable strategy to enhance memory”. There is a lot of detail to learn on the Moon. It’s a fractal place: there are craters at every scale, from the microscopic to hundreds-of-kilometres wide and “it is estimated that the Moon’s surface is studded with more than 3 trillion (3,000,000,000,000) craters larger than a metre in diameter” (pg. 9).

So learning your way around the Moon is a fractal process: first you learn to recognize the giant features, like Copernicus, Kepler and the maria (seas), montes (mountains) and valles (valleys), then you begin to fill in the gaps, then the gaps between the gaps, then the gaps between those. Grego supplies maps and commentary to help you on your way:

The polygonal crater Timaeus (33 km) perches on W. Bond’s south-western wall and surveys across the plains of Mare Frigoris across to the Montes Alpes, 175 km to the south. Archytas (32 km) and Protagoras (21) are two sharp-rimmed but somewhat misshapen craters whose dark shadow-filled eyes keep watch over the northern approaches of Mare Frigoris. (ch. 4, “Moonwatching”, Day seven, pg. 87)

He’s never finished learning about the Moon, however, and neither will anyone else. It’s a life-long adventure and although the Moon might seem cold and unchanging, at least over a human life-span, there are rare events called TLP, or “Transient Lunar Phenomena”, to look out for. These are “apparent obscurations, glows or flashes on the Moon’s surface” that don’t have definitive explanations. Are rocks collapsing? Is sublunar gas leaking out? Might there even be life there after all?

Life is highly doubtful, but Grego notes that “lunar topography is virtually neglected by professional astronomers” (pg. 6), so amateurs still have the chance to make important discoveries. This book might help someone to do that, but the rewards of selenoscopy don’t depend on advancing science or using clever technology. Grego opens the book by asking “Why Observe the Moon?”, then quotes an excellent answer to that question from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion and his book Astronomy for Amateurs (1903). What Flammarion said more than a century ago is still true today:

From all time the Moon has had the privilege of charming the gaze, and attracting the particular attention of mortals. What thoughts have not risen to her pale, yet luminous disk? Orb of mystery and of solitude, brooding over our silent nights, this celestial luminary is at once sad and splendid in her glacial purity, and her limpid rays provoke a reverie full of charm and melancholy. (“Why Observe the Moon?”, pg. 4)

In fact, you could say that the Moon is a touchstone of human nature. Chimpanzees and gorillas may be almost identical to us in their genes, but they don’t talk, make art or gaze at the Moon in wonder. We still do and although we don’t usually worship the Moon any more, we may owe it our very existence. How important have the tides been in the evolution of life on earth? They provided a zone of transition for the emergence of plants and animals from the sea, and perhaps a Moon-less Earth would also be a Man-less Earth.

But the Earth could have Moon without Man if it’s struck by an asteroid of sufficient size. The scars on the Moon’s surface should be constant reminders of the vigilance that’s necessary and the technology that we still need to develop. But the Moon is memento mori in more ways than one. Asteroid strikes are pinpricks by comparison with what may have happened to the Earth in the remote past:

Now widely accepted to be the most likely origin of the Moon is the giant impact or ‘big splash’ theory. This theory suggests that a Mars-sized planet (around half the size of the Earth) smashed into the young Earth, disintegrating the impactor and the Earth’s mantle at the site of impact. A cloud of debris was splashed into near-Earth orbit, and the outer rings of this temporary ring of material coalesced to form the Moon. (ch. 1, pg. 21)

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character Professor Challenger pointed out in 1913: there are “many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend”. The Moon should frighten as well as awe and enchant us, or we might not survive to be awed and enchanted. This book will help you understand all these aspects of the Queen of the Night.

I also hope that Grego will write a sequel to it one day: Moon Tourist’s Guide. We’re still on schedule for at least some of the future envisaged by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel A Fall of Moondust (1961), which was set in the mid-twenty-first century. A moon-cruiser called Selene may not be sailing in a basin of dust as “fine as talcum-powder” by then, but there may still be lunar tourism. If so, selenographers like Peter Grego will be able to see close-up what they’ve long surveyed from afar.

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Sextant by David Barrie
Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

When a triumphant emperor rode through Rome, he’s said to have had a slave at his shoulder whispering: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This book has a related message for its readers: “Remember, you’re comfortable.” The world has become much smaller and much safer since the days when a sextant was an essential part of every ship’s equipment.

Or has seemed to become smaller and safer, anyway. David Barrie reminded himself of the underlying reality by sailing across the Atlantic in 1973 with two companions in a 35-ft sloop called Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for “Sea-Queen”). The voyage was powered by the wind and guided by the heavens in the old-fashioned way:

Of course I was intellectually aware of the size of the ocean when we set out from Halifax [on the coast of Nova Scotia], but spending twenty-four days crossing it under sail gave its dimensions a very different and truly sublime reality. The long night watches looking up at the stars in the black immensity of space were a lesson in humility and the experience of a gale in mid-Atlantic left me wondering what it must be like to encounter a real storm. People often talk idiotically about “conquering mountains” or “defying the sea”, but there is no real contest. I was left with an overwhelming sense of nature’s vast scale and complete indifference, and this had a strangely calming effect. We come and we go, the earth too was born and will eventually die, but the universe in all its chilly splendour abides. (ch. 18, “Two Landfalls”, pp. 289-90)

That’s at the end of the book. Descriptions of Barrie’s voyage in the 1970s open almost every previous chapter and set the context first for a history of celestial navigation and then for the stories of the men who used it. Their expertise with sextants and other instruments won them fame, but not always fortune. Nor a quiet and dignified death. Captain Cook charted the Pacific, then was hacked to death on Hawaii in 1779. Joshua Slocum made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895-6, then “disappeared at sea after setting sail from Martha’s Vineyard on a single-handed voyage to the Amazon in November 1908” (ch. 15, “Slocum Circles the World”, pg. 255).

George Bass, after whom the strait separating Tasmania from Australia is named, disappeared too, perhaps at sea, perhaps into the slave-mines of a Spanish colony in South America: “Whatever the truth, Bass was never heard of again.” (ch. 12, “Flinders – Coasting Australia”, pg. 176) That was in 1803. I hadn’t heard of Bass before or of his even more adventurous companion Matthew Flinders. And I didn’t know that Vancouver in Canada was named after the explorer George Vancouver. I’m glad to have changed that.

I had heard of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, but I’ understood the scale of his achievements better by reading this book. He had witnessed Cook’s death on Hawaii, which was why he didn’t want to risk landing on any of the islands of the Tongan archipelago after he was set adrift in an open boat by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. Instead, equipped with only a sextant and compass, Bligh set sail for “Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, some 3,600 nautical miles away” (ch. 4, “Bligh’s Boat Journey”, pg. 41). He needed both skill and “bloody-minded determination” to succeed.

He also needed intelligence. That combination explains why this book about mapping the world’s oceans is dominated by men from a small corner of that world: north-western Europe. Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Bass were English; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Perouse, were French. There’s an “x” in sextant and an “XY” in the human beings who invented and used the instrument. Galileo was one of them: his discovery of the Jovian moons provided a way to determine longitude.

Latitude was relatively easy: you can obtain that by determining the height of, say, Polaris at the north celestial pole. If Polaris is directly overhead, you’re at the north pole. If it’s on the horizon, you’re on the equator. If you can’t see Polaris at all, you’re in the southern hemisphere. Or it’s daylight or a cloudy night. Navigation in past centuries was difficult and dangerous. When Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell got it wrong “on the night of 22 October 1707”, he lost four ships and 2,000 men on the “reef-strewn Isles of Scilly” (ch. 5, “Anson’s Ordeals”, pg. 54). Barrie adds that “Shovell himself was washed ashore and reportedly murdered by a local woman who fancied the ring on his finger.”

Even today, with GPS, radar and secure communications, the sea is still claiming lives. This book reminds you of the days when it claimed many more and was a much more frightening place to venture. Those days may return: modern electronics and satellite technology are a fragile system and Barrie describes at the end of the book how some sailors deliberately abandon it, training themselves to rely on their own eyes and brains, not on the pressing of buttons. This book is about balls in more senses than one. The Polynesians who made astonishing voyages over the Pacific didn’t use only their eyes:

When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide. (ch. 17, “‘These are men’”, pg. 283)

That’s a reminder of the male biochemistry underlying the courage required to face the sea and the spatial skills that had to accompany it. There are lots of balls elsewhere: the terrestrial globe and the globes of the sun, moon, planets and stars that helped men navigate their way around it. Sextant is a fascinating read about some formidable men and their often frightening voyages. They helped shape the modern world and you can’t understand the modern world without knowing something about them. This book is an excellent place to start.

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Discovering the UniverseDiscovering the Universe: The Story of Astronomy, Paul Murdin (Andre Deutsch 2014)

First published in 2011 as Mapping the Universe, this is a well-written, well-illustrated history of astronomy that begins in the Stone Age and ends with the Hubble Space Telescope and Large Hadron Collider. The photographs will stimulate your eyes as the text stimulates your mind. The universe is a big place and big things happen there, like gamma-ray bursts (GRBs):

Until 1997, astronomers didn’t know whether GRBs originated in some sort of explosions on the edge of our solar system, around our Galaxy, or far away. Two examples proved that the explosions occur the edge of the observable Universe. For their duration of a few seconds, the bursts had been over a million times brighter than their parent galaxy, the biggest bangs since the Big Bang. (ch. 17, “Exploding Stars”, pg. 87)

Ptolemy, Galileo and Newton would all be astonished by the technology that allows modern astronomers to study phenomena like gamma-ray bursts, but one thing has remained constant: the importance of mathematics and measurement in studying the sky. The story of astronomy is not just about seeing further and clearer, but also of measuring better and mathematizing more powerfully. Ptolemy’s geocentric universe entailed the arbitrary complexity of epicycles on epicycles, to explain how the planets sometimes seemed to move backwards against the stars. Then Copernicus resurrected the ancient Greek hypothesis of a heliocentric universe.

Back cover

Back cover

Planetary retrogression became easier to explain. Other hypotheses, like the steady state universe and Kepler’s planetary Platonic solids, haven’t proved successful, but data don’t explain themselves and astronomers have to be adventurous in mind, if not usually in body. This book contains the big names, the big sights and the big mysteries that are still awaiting explanation. More big names, sights and mysteries are on their way.

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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The End of Night by Paul BogardThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

Night + light = bad. Interesting subject + poor prose = disappointing. And those are the formulae that govern this book. Artificial light destroys one of the most beautiful and inspiring sights in nature: the night sky. In proper darkness, we can see thousands of stars with the naked eye. In a brightly lit city, we’re lucky to see any at all. And we certainly don’t see any unless we’re looking straight up. That’s why artifical light is like amplified music and traffic noise: it’s one of the great barbarisms of modern life. So I was glad to come across this book.

I wasn’t glad for long, because it’s over-written and dull, despite the interesting topics it covers: the biology and ecology of darkness, the wonders of astronomy, sleep and dreams, the journey from candles to gas to electricity, from night as source of mystery and beauty to night as perpetual light. Paul Bogard “studied Literature and Environment” at the University of Nevada and now “teaches writing at James Madison University” in Virginia. And it shows. If he were British, he’d be a Guardianista. And sure enough:

That we don’t notice glaring lights anymore has direct ramifications for light pollution, of course, but in terms of safety and security, because we are so used to bright lighting, we won’t notice if anything out of the ordinary is taking place. (ch. 7, “Light That Blinds, Light That Enlightens”, pp. 75-6)

I’d like to agree with his argument that light at night doesn’t deter crime as most people imagine it does, but he makes a glaring oversight:

Asked in one study what factors deterred them from targeting a house, criminals listed “belief that house is occupied,” “presence of alarms or CCTV/camera outside the property,” and, to a lesser extent, the “apparent strength of doors/window locks.” Nowhere did they mention the presence of lighting. (Ibid., pg. 76)

Light and its absence are implicit in “belief that house is occupied”, aren’t they? And how good is “CCTV/Camera” when it’s dark? That’s why I gave up this book by chapter 7, which was actually the third chapter in the book. That was a nice touch, paying tribute to the “amateur astronomer John Bortle”, who created a “scale on which he described various levels of dark skies, ranking them 9 to 1, brightest to darkest” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). So the deeper you get into the book, the darker it gets, until the final chapter, chapter 1, is about “The Darkest Places”.

I’d like to have got that far and I wish Paul Bogard well in his campaign for less light and more night. But on this first attempt, at least, I got bored and gave up.

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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