Last updated 2/6/02

Astronomy, Astrophysics, Cosmology, and other related topics.

So many books, so little time. There are lots of digestable, popular books out there about astronomy and related sciences. Here are a few to get you started.


Alchemy of the Heavens by Ken Croswell -- Croswell focuses on stellar evolution and the evolution of galaxies in a narrative that alternates between the very technical and the very personal. He gives first hand glimpses into the lives and thoughts of many modern astronomers and cosmologists and provides insights into the battles as they are being fought today. A great book to read if you're interested in the contributions of astronomers of the 70's right up to the mid-90's. He also gives an historical treatment of his main topics (stellar evolution and galactic formation) but the history is brief -- his main focus is on the state of these investigations today.

Asteroids : A History by Curtis Peebles -- An outstanding introductory and reference work on the current thinking behind the asteroid phenomenon, including the controversies over naming, geological studies etc. Covers in some depth the main periods of asteroid discovery, from visual to photographic to automated. Also deals briefly with issues of asteroid origin; a very interesting discussion of the analysis of "groups" of asteroids, identified by similarities in their orbital elements, as well as interesting treatment of Jupiter's effects on sweeping out lanes in the asteroid belt. Excellent treatment of the NEA threat, from its inception up through the SL-9 impact.

Quirky treatment of light pollution in the middle of the book, in the context of the naming phenomenon (an asteroid was named for the city of San Diego after a light pollution ordinance was passed, but later rescinded, though the asteroid kept its name). It was an interesting discussion, and a story that deserves to be told, but didn't belong in the middle of this book.

Before the Beginning : Our Universe and Others (Helix Books) by Martin J. Rees

Before the Big Bang : The Origins of the Universe by Ernest J. Sternglass

The Big Bang Never Happened by Eric J. Lerner -- Lerner's challenge to the big bang is entirely based on the plasma theories of Hannes Alfven. Lerner's book is not to be ignored, but he is clearly swimming upstream in challenging the most successful cosmological theory available.

Black Holes and Time Warps : Einstein's Outrageous Legacy by Kip S. Thorne -- This book is long and sometimes difficult, but Thorne keeps the narrative personal and adds lots of his own views and experiences as the book progresses. Contains excellent summaries of the general and special theories of relativity and, of course, lots of information on black hole theory.

Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System by Bruce Dorminey

In February of 1990, JPL operators turned on Voyager I's camera for one last task, the so-called "family portrait" of our solar system. Though it was nearly 3.8 billion miles distant at the time, Voyager's camera was able to image the planet Earth - barely a 5th magnitude speck (Sagan's "pale blue dot") about a degree away from the -19th magnitude sun.

While Voyager's instruments were not designed with the detection of planets around distant stars in mind, that pixel-wide photo of planet Earth gives some appreciation for the difficulty of the task. Imagine trying to detect Earth from our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, which is 7000 times more distant than Voyager I was when the family photo was snapped.

Bruce Dorminey's excellent new book "Distant Wanderers" does a great job of conveying the exquisite difficulty of extra solar planet hunting. What I had always thought of as a relatively narrow focus for a few astronomers turns out to be an incredibly rich and diverse field. As older technologies are adapted, and new technologies are developed, the field is undergoing an explosive growth phase, characterized by a dizzying array of new discoveries and tantalizing hints of discoveries yet to come.

Dorminey spent over two years traveling to conferences, observatories, or any place he could find astronomers. He collected both narratives of their research as well as some personal asides on their motives and desires (though the emphasis is decidedly on the science). The text is written in the spirit of Overbye and Lightman. Distant Wanderers is scientific story telling at its best, as Dorminey introduces us to scientists who are not as well known as Butler and Marcy. The story of French scientist Antione Labeyrie (p. 103) and his attempt to develop instrumentation for the Hubble Space telescope for use in planet hunting is political and scientific irony at its ugliest and best.

Instead of a glossary at the end of the book (which I find that I almost never use), Dorminey has peppered the chapters with indented asides containing definitions of major terms in bold print. These are placed in contextually logical places and I found them to be helpful and interesting while reading the text.

It would be hard to overstate the rapid pace of change in this field. As I read "Distant Wanderers," it became clear that the search for extra solar planets has forced astrophysicists and geologists to clarify their definitions of both "star" and "planet," and Dorminey gives ample room to a discussion of both concepts along the way.

Dorminey's book also contains what is perhaps the best description I've ever read of how optical interferometry can measure the diameters of super giant stars, and the efforts being made today to extend the use of optical interferometry to the search for planets around other stars. His ability to take thorny scientific issues and explain them in terms anyone can understand is excellent.

Distant Wanderers joins two other excellent books on this topic: Worlds Unnumbered by Donald Goldsmith and Planet Quest by Ken Crosswell, both also well worth reading.

Is the field changing so fast that "Distant Wanderers" will quickly be obsolete? Perhaps, but that is the risk taken by any science writer willing to take on a timely topic. If you're looking for a good general work on how the search for extra solar planets works, this book will remain a standard for many years to come.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene -- Greene's first several chapters are a review of general and special relativity, and quantum theory, and are perhaps the best summaries I've ever read of these topics. His later chapters attempt to delve into string theory, but I found these much less compelling than the first part of the book.

Fire on Earth : Doomsday, Dinosaurs, and Humankind by John R. Gribbin -- A very readable account of the history of the discovery of the K-T boundary enigmas and the consequent discovery of the Yucatan impact site. A good read.

First Light : The Search for the Edge of the Universe by Richard Preston -- An intimate look inside the workings of modern observatories. A reporter spends quality time with some astronomers and writes about their hopes, dreams, struggles, successes, and everyday lives. Great book.

Full Moon by Michael Light, Andrew Chaikin (Contributor) -- An incredible book of pictures documenting the Apollo program. Light was granted access to the original photographic negatives. All other pictures you've ever seen on the moon landings were 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation copies of originals. Light's book will open your eyes with the striking beauty and realism of the photos. A must buy book.

God's Equation : Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe by Amir D. Aczel -- Aczel, whose book about Fermat's last theorem was an enjoyable romp through the history of mathematics, now turns his attention to Einstein's theory of general relativity and its implications for cosmology. Based on his work with some historians who are taking a fresh look at Einstein's life and work through recently discovered notebooks and correspondence (Renn, Stachel, et.al), Aczel is able to reveal some previously unknown factoids about the 20th century's greatest scientist. For example, a previously unknown notebook from about 1912 reveals that Einstein had produced his field equation for gravitation nearly 3 years earlier than its final publication in 1915. Apparently Einstein was not convinced of the accuracy of this equation, for he abandoned it, only to rederive it 3 years later with apparently no recollection that he'd been there before. Aczel also spends some effort refuting the popular myth that Einstein was no good at mathematics. He was a superb mathematician, says Aczel, and largely self-taught, which speaks to his agile intellect and intuitive sense for fruitful areas of research.

Unlike any other biographies of Einstein or expositions of relativity that I've read, Aczel takes a "mathematician's eye view" of general relativity, and spends considerable time tracing the development of the geometry of curved space through Gauss, Reimann, and several other lessor known contributors. He also reveals, which I had not known previously, that Einstein kept up an ongoing correspondence with the legendary German mathematician David Hilbert, and that Hilbert published some work of his own based on early copies of Einstein's field equations. This incident has apparently been fodder for considerable historiagraphical debate, and was only recently settled that there was no plagiarism or other funny business occurring on the part of either man.

God's Equation is not all Einstein, however. Aczel also introduces us to many of the nagging questions in modern cosmology, and astronomers' attempts to reconcile the recently discovered accelerating expansion of the universe with current theories. Astronomer Saul Perlmutter is central to the story's recent developments, whose supernova observing program lent considerable weight to the accelerating expansion scenario. Taking center stage for this discussion is the resurrection of the cosmological constant, Einstein's famous "blunder," which Aczel argues, has never really left cosmology. As modern astronomers have looked further and further into the universe and back in time, the cosmological constant seems more and more necessary to some theorists, as a repulsive force to counteract the attractive force of gravity (which is itself a brute simplification, since anybody familiar with general relativity knows that gravity is not a force at all, but rather a result of curved spacetime).

Overall, I do recommend this book, though I'm frustrated that Aczel didn't do much more with this opportunity. This book could have easily been twice as long. I get the sense that he was hurried to get it to print for some reason, passing over stories that begged for further clarification (more, for instance, on the eclipse expeditions so central to providing proof for general relativity, and less on the roots of World War I, which delayed the expeditions). All in all, it's an excellent addition to the existing material on Einstein's life and work, and a teaser for more detail on what's really going on in modern cosmology (in the last two or three years, particularly). It makes me hunger for some publications based on Renn and Stachel's work on Einstein. I found a few typographical errors (in a discussion about the effect of Minkowski's lectures on Einstein while at the ETH, he gives a date for Minkowski's birth four years after Einstein published his paper on special relativity).

Hunting Down the Universe : The Missing Mass, Primordial Black Holes, and Other Dark Matters by Michael Hawkins -- British astrophysicist Hawkins presents his theory as to what makes up the missing mass (dark matter). Primordial black holes -- small massive objects that are all but invisible to any attempt to perceive them. They are detectable only by their gravitational influence, which Hawkins believes he has found by examining the variability of light from quasars. All quasars apparently have this variability, which to this point has always been accepted as intrinsic to to the quasar.

Hawkins treats us to the theory only after 130 pages of his own views of the evolution of cosmological thought, complete with his take on the feuds, backbiting, and troubled waters of academic squabbling. His insights are interesting and his book a pleasure to read, but I had the troubling impression that I was being treated to someone else's dirty laundry all the while, though that's the way science works I suppose. Among opinions he expresses that ring true is that of the "HST bias," that results which come from HST observations are somehow given automatic priority over those of ground-based observations, a bias which is clearly not always warranted.

The most interesting part of his book, for me, was his detailed descriptions of his own observational programs -- using a series of Schmidt plates of a single patch of sky, accumulated over a period of years, to search for faint variable stars. His hopes were to find microlensing events to bolster his theory. He ended up finding lots of previously unknown quasars, and finding new patterns of quasar variability spanning years, not months or weeks.

Hawkins is an unabashed UK promoter. I had to grin at many of his descriptions of the superior astronomy of the UK. He has a lot to brag about though.

The Inflationary Universe : The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins by Alan H. Guth, Alan P. Lightman -- in spite of Lightman's contributions, I found this book very difficult to get through. Many other writers have done a better job of explaining inflation, in my opinion. Guth is a brilliant scientist, but this is not the best book to explain modern cosmology.

The Life of the Cosmos by Lee Smolin

Mission Jupiter: The Spectacular Journey of the Galileo Spacecraft by Daniel Fischer

A must-read for any Jupiter-phile. Fischer presents an indepth look at the science behind the Galileo mission to Jupiter. From the history behind the probe, going all the way back to the 1970's, to the budget cutting, to the eventual launch and failure of the high-gain antenna. It's all covered in this volume, with exquisite detail and enough science content to take you well beyond the press releases. Highly recommended!

Measuring the Universe : Our Historic Quest to Chart the Horizons of Space and Time by Kitty Ferguson -- A very nice history of astronomy and cosmology written from the angle of determining the distance scale of the universe. Ferguson starts with an anecdote from her childhood when her father challenged Ferguson and her brother to measure the height of a windmill without touching it. They came upon the solution of using the shadow of the windmill and some basic mathematics. From there, Ferguson launches into the stories of Eratosthenes, Aristarchus and other ancients, right up to modern day debates over the value of Omega, the cosmological constant, and standard candles. This is a very readable and enjoyable account and is not overly technical.

Night Comes to the Cretaceus : Comets, Craters, Controversy, and the Last Days of the Dinosaurs by James Lawrence Powell

Planet Quest: The Epic Discovery of Alien Solar Systems by Ken Croswell

Relativity Simply Explained by Martin Gardner

The Star of Bethlehem, An Astronomer's View by Mark Kidger -- One of two books on the star of Bethlehem published in 1999 by an astronomer. Kidger takes the view that the phenomenon was a series of events, specifically a planetary grouping followed a few months later by a bright nova. Whether you're interested in the biblical account at all, Kidger's book is an interesting historical romp through dozens of great planetary conjunctions and massings, and an enjoyable read.

The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar -- This book surprised the heck out of me. I expected another typical rundown of the usual astronomical suspects (comets, supernova, planetary massings and conjunctions, etc.) but was pleasantly surprised to find instead a very serious and scholarly treatment of first century astrology. As a certified skeptic, I've always given fairly short-shrift to astrology in general, but until reading Molnar's book, I don't think I ever understood how truly complex and technical it is. Certainly the "science" of the ancient world, Molnar argues that without such an understanding of astrology, the biblical clues as to the identity are simply missed by virtually all researchers of the star of Bethlehem. For good reason, most astronomers and biblical scholars have largely avoided the role of astrology other than casual mentions. Instead, they have focused on astronomical phenomena that are visually striking, and which they believe would have been meaningful to the visitors from the east.

Molnar takes the astrological bull by the horns, and, combined with the very novel angle of first century coinage, provides a compelling and persuasive new theory of the true nature of the Matthean "star." Briefly, Molnar points to the language of the original Greek text of Matthew 2, and identifies unmistakable allusions to a star's helical rising, and to features of a planet's "retrograde" motion (he argues that the Greek for "went before" and "stood over" are clearly references to a retrograde loop and stationary point).

In a very well documented and easily readable account, Molnar traces the evidence to a helical rising and subsequent lunar occultation of Jupiter in April of 6 BC. After this event, which took place in the constellation of Aries, Jupiter proceeded to travel east, go retrograde, and resume its eastward journey over the next several months. Though the occultation would not have been observable (it happened after noon on April 17th), Molnar argues that this is inconsequential since all astrology was done via charts based on Ptolemy's tables of planetary positions anyway. Astrologers were much more interested in the significance of their charts and rarely made any effort to observe the events they portrayed. Furthermore, many significant astrological events are visually unimpressive even if they are observable.

I don't know if Molnar is right. Others take the approach that the star must have been a series of conjunctions or nova phenomenon (Kidger and Hughes). Some say the whole event is a myth (Gardner). Molnar's contribution is certainly worth reading and has gained the approval of some fine authorities (Gingerich and Trimble both wrote jacket reviews).

Venus Revealed : A New Look Below the Clouds of Our Mysterious Twin Planet by David Harry Grinspoon -- Surprisingly technical yet accessible discussions of the current state of Venus knowledge. Enjoyable accounts of the early efforts by Soviet and US space probes, as well as the radar studies done in the 60's to determine Venus' distance from Earth.

Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life Beyond the Earth by Laurence Bergreen -- Bergreen's book is a very intimate look at how science really works. In successive chapters, he takes us inside four groups of men and women: the team of scientists that worked on the Martian meteorite ALH84001; the Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner team, the team in charge of the Mars Global Surveyor's laser altimeter, and finally, inside Dan Goldin's NASA. What we see is a far cry from the polished interviews on TV, or the neatly written articles in Nature or Science. The truth is that scientists rarely agree on anything other than very broad assumptions, and often not even on those. Instead, scientists, even those working together on the same project, can heatedly disagree with one another's assumptions or interpretations, making it difficult to agree on the best way data should be released to the public.

An example from the MGS laser altimeter team (specifically the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter or MOLA). This instrument shoots blasts of laser light from the orbiting spacecraft to the surface of Mars, and times their return to the sensor. By doing so, an incredibly accurate topographical relief map of Mars can be created. However, Mars has no absolute altitude marker like Earth (sea-level). Therefore, the scientists have to agree on an altitude reference against which all other measurements are compared. The specific reference chosen is critical because it will be used in all subsequent analyses of MOLA data. Any error could potentially be a spoiler for generations of future researchers. Bergreen was there when they discussed whether they were ready to commit to an altitude reference and start releasing data (many team members argued "yes!") or whether more data and study were needed before the team published such critical information (other team members said "wait!").

Also typical was the conflict in choosing a landing site for the Mars Polar Lander. Scientists pour over the data from MGS and pick a site that is geologically interesting. Engineers pour over the MGS data and pick a site that is safe. The two goals are often at direct odds with one another. The engineers want statistical rock-counts so that they can ensure their craft won't topple over a boulder. Scientists argue that the sites chosen by the engineers will nullify all the science objectives of the mission. Such discussions can quickly become personal as emotions boil over and passionate beliefs give way to shouting contests.

Bergreen's book is in many ways reminiscent of Overbye's Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, only directed at Planetary scientists instead of cosmologists. This book will be of extreme interest to Marsophiles, but will also be enlightening to those who want an inside look at Dan Goldin's NASA, or at the process actually followed by scientists in the trenches. I recommend this book highly to these two groups as well as anyone else who hasn't updated their knowledge of Mars exploration since Viking.

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