Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

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 This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there.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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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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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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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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Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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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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Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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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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