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The Day We Found the Universeby Marcia Bartusiak
Synopses & Reviews
On January 1, 1925, thirty-five-year-old Edwin Hubble announced the observation that ultimately established that our universe was a thousand trillion times larger than previously believed, filled with myriad galaxies like our own. This discovery dramatically reshaped how humans understood their place in the cosmos, and once and for all laid to rest the idea that the Milky Way galaxy was alone in the universe. Six years later, continuing research by Hubble and others forced Albert Einstein to renounce his own cosmic model and finally accept the astonishing fact that the universe was not immobile but instead expanding.
The fascinating story of these interwoven discoveries includes battles of will, clever insights, and wrong turns made by the early investigators in this great twentieth-century pursuit. It is a story of science in the making that shows how these discoveries were not the work of a lone genius but the combined efforts of many talented scientists and researchers toiling away behind the scenes. The intriguing characters include Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered the means to measure the vast dimensions of the cosmos . . . Vesto Slipher, the first and unheralded discoverer of the universes expansion . . . Georges Lemaître, the Jesuit priest who correctly interpreted Einsteins theories in relation to the universe . . . Milton Humason, who, with only an eighth-grade education, became a world-renowned expert on galaxy motions . . . and Harlow Shapley, Hubbles nemesis, whose flawed vision of the universe delayed the discovery of its true nature and startling size for more than a decade.
Here is a watershed moment in the history of astronomy, brought about by the exceptional combination of human curiosity, intelligence, and enterprise, and vividly told by acclaimed science writer Marcia Bartusiak.
"Science writer Bartusiak (Through a Universe Darkly) vividly tells the story behind the discovery that changed our cozy view of the universe. One hundred years ago, the Milky Way was all the cosmos we knew, 'a lone, star-filled oasis surrounded by a darkness of unknown depth.' But in 1929, word came that the universe was expanding. The find is largely attributed to astronomer Edwin Hubble, a Rhodes scholar and dandy, while he was observing the heavens through Mount Wilson's 100-inch telescope. Hubble became a media hit, but as Bartusiak explains, this finding was part of a long chain of discoveries made at the time. James Keeler's stellar photographs first revealed mysterious 'celestial flocks' of fainter nebulae, and Henrietta Leavitt's relentless study of variable stars became the basis for determining stellar distances. Hubble's rival, Harlow Shapley, unveiled the architecture of the Milky Way and Earth's insignificant position within it. From the women 'computers' who analyzed stellar photographs for Harvard to Mars-mad Percival Lowell, Bartusiak reveals the vibrant beginnings of modern astronomy, along with all the dreams and fears, rivalries and triumphs, of those involved." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Famous astronomy anecdote: It's 1923, and astronomer Harlow Shapley, the leading proponent of the theory that the Milky Way is the one and only galaxy, gets a letter from Edwin Hubble. Shapley reads it, turns to a colleague and says, "Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe." Marcia Bartusiak's new book is the back story of that anecdote. At issue are faint wisps of light... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) known as spiral nebulae. Astronomers first detected them in the 18th century. There were dozens of them — no, hundreds. Their nature was furiously debated. One camp argued that they were within the Milky Way, solar systems in the making — clouds of dust and gas with an embryonic star at the center. The other camp argued that they were agglomerations of stars — "island universes" — that were outside the Milky Way and were small and faint only because of their immense distance. The debate took a couple of centuries to play out. In the meantime, under scrutiny by ever larger telescopes, the spiral nebulae proliferated. There were thousands, perhaps millions of them. (Billions, it turns out.) For a while the island-universe theory was ascendant. Then contradictory observations pointed to the baby-solar-systems theory. We get all the way to the 1920s with the nebulae still a mystery, and astronomers still trying to figure out the scale of the universe. The story of the spiral nebulae is a familiar one to astronomy buffs, but Bartusiak's intelligent and engaging book may well become the standard popular account. Some of the early chapters could have benefited from a red pencil here and there to excise unneeded verbiage, but that problem fades as the author hits her stride. More problematic is the comprehensiveness of the tale. There are moments when I found myself despairing at the arrival on the scene of yet another astronomer, yet another telescope, yet another set of photographic plates, yet another incremental teasing of the truth from the murky heavens. Bartusiak cannot be accused of leaving anyone important out of her story. Indeed, there are almost as many characters as there are stars in the sky. Some of them, such as Shapley and Hubble, are charismatic and quirky; some never quite seem as interesting as their telescopes. However, there is a fine set piece on Henrietta Leavitt, a Harvard assistant who, laboring in this rigidly patriarchal field, realizes that certain stars serve as standards for measuring cosmic distances (she might have won a Nobel Prize had she lived longer). The astronomers practice heroic science. The telescopes get bigger. The mountaintops get higher and colder. The universe becomes clearer: The nebulae are, indeed, island universes — separate galaxies outside the Milky Way. Shapley's "Big Universe" turns out to be but a meager portion of Hubble's galaxy-strewn cosmos. Bartusiak's book is, ultimately, about how hard science is, how taxing, particularly when you are trying to excavate truth from a grudging universe. The astronomers get it wrong about as often as they get it right. Just when a consensus seems to be forming, it is obliterated by a new observation. There was no single breakthrough, but many of them, as well as many mistakes and misapprehensions. Hubble famously gets the credit for solving the mystery — a certain kind of variable star he found in the Andromeda nebula revealed that Andromeda is a separate galaxy at great distance — but his discovery was built on the labor and insights of so many others. Let's throw some love to Vesto Slipher. And Heber Curtis. Oh, and one more thing: Those distant spiral nebulae are racing away from us. Hubble figured that out, too, and with it the most compelling evidence that we live in an expanding universe. Modern astronomy uses magnificent tools to intensify our perception. The universe says, "Look at me." The astronomers oblige, and you know how it turns out: The universe gets much bigger and much more interesting than we ever could have imagined. Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His books include "Captured By Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe." Reviewed by Joel Achenbach, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
Bartusiak teaches at MIT, is the award-winning author of several books, and has contributed to numerous publications including National Geographic, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. In her latest text she presents an account of the discovery of the modern universe in the early-20th century. The story details the contributions made by not only Edwin Hubble but also the many talented and scientists working behind the scenes, including Henrietta Leavitt, Vesto Slipher, Georges Lemâitre, Milton Humason, and Harlow Shapley. Illustrated with b&w photographs. Academic but accessible to general readers. Annotation Â©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Marcia Bartusiak is an award-winning author whose previous books include Through a Universe Darkly, Thursdays Universe, Einsteins Unfinished Symphony, and Archives of the Universe. Her work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She teaches at MIT and lives in Sudbury, Massachusetts
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