Posts Tagged ‘planets’

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 This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there.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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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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