Skip to main content

Eyes on the Sky - Francis Graham-Smith ***

There are broadly two types of popular science book - those that pretty well anyone would find interesting, and those where you have to be a bit of an enthusiast to enjoy it. Eyes on the Sky falls into the second category - there's nothing wrong with this, but it's just a rather different kind of book, one that concentrates on piling in the facts and not worrying too much about the narrative.

What we have here is an exploration of the uses of telescopes in astronomy, from Galileo through to some instruments that are still being built. The historical side is dealt with relatively quickly - we're on to the big telescopes of my youth by page 17 out of 230. The big era begins by inevitably highlighting what we always use to call in our ignorance the Mount Palomar telescope, but is now primly insistent in its old age on being the Hale 200 inch.

From there we go on to the bewildering array of modern telescopes, land and space based, covering every imaginable bit of the electromagnetic spectrum. (The book we written just too late to catch recent speculation that gravity waves might become the next generation of novel telescopy.) If, like me, you fall into the slightly nerdy second category, there are two aspects that are fascinating here - one is the sheer range of equipment out there. It's not just the big names like Hubble and Keck, but tens of telescopes you may never have heard of. The other bit that's even more interesting is finding out more about how these telescopes actually work. We're all pretty familiar with optical telescopes and radio telescopes (and good old Jodrell Bank, where the author worked, gets plenty of mentions), but may not be aware how an infra-red or X-ray telescope functions - yet these are now essential workhorses. With X-rays, and gamma rays for instance, you can't use a lens or a traditional mirror, and the methods employed are quite remarkable, especially the coded mask approach used, for example, in the Burst Alert Telescope that was mounted on the Swift satellite in use since 2005 (no, I hadn't heard of it, either). Used to spot gamma ray bursts, this looks like a vast jigsaw puzzle with about a quarter of the pieces missing.

Similarly interesting is the way that modern telescopes, particularly radio telescopes, often use a pair or an array of telescopes to either provide interference patterns or to simulate a vast telescope with a much wider reflector than could ever be built. I was aware of the concept, but the scale of something like the Square Kilometre Array is still remarkable.

Although the historical context was limited, it mostly seemed reasonable, though I'm not entirely sure of the statement that the telescope used by Penzias and Wilson to discover the cosmic microwave background radiation was built by Bell Labs to measure the radio brightness of the sky, as most sources suggest it was originally constructed for communications satellite/balloon experiments.

If you like to build your background knowledge and have an interest in how astronomy is undertaken, rather than just the results, this is the book for you. You probably won't consider this much of a holiday read, but if, like me, you have an interest in astronomy (and probably dabbled with small telescopes in your teens) it will be irresistible.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…