A second collection of brief essays, reflections, and tales by Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory physicist...



A second collection of brief essays, reflections, and tales by Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory physicist Lightman (Time Travel and Uncle Joe's Pipe). We meet the spectral Uncle Joe in this collection, too, in the first and longest essay in the book. Here, Lightman sets out to do no less than explain the past century of astrophysical discoveries--from star measurements to gravitational theories to black holes--as sort of an update for his no-nonsense relative. Alas, the device of the ghostly ancestor with a skeptical but inquiring mind was already cloying in volume I, so let us hope Lightman buries him next time around. For the rest, Lightman suceeds admirably in some predictable terrains: gravitational waves, extraterrestrial life, Halley's comet, what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang (impressed by Stephen Hawking's equations to define those initial conditions), and other matters astrophysical. Here Lightman demonstrates a gift for colloquial reductions of the complex that would be intelligible by junior high students. But the book's charm more often lies in the unexpected and the personal: an amusing tale that established a student's incompetence in an electronics lab; a bedtime conversation with his daughter about the camel's hump and the moon in the sky; the origins of snowflakes; a neurophysiological description of an encounter climaxed by a smile; a walk around Walden Pond. . . Lightman also displays a serious political side, inveighing against the new breed of star warriors who are elated at the thought of unleashing potent weapons in space--individuals who have never known war in their lifetimes. In homage to Swift, Lightman's ""Modest Proposal"" is to annihilate some measly third-world nation, already hopelessly in poverty and debt, so that the rest of the world could get a close-up view. The title essay is a bit about waking up in 1880 and being arrested for spouting all sorts of nonsense about being a creature of the 20th century. The trial is not going well as our hero realizes that he can't explain how a television set or a refrigerator works. But then comes a moment when he has to write something and produces a ballpoint pen. Acquittal promptly follows. A pleasantly mixed bag, then, with references provided for those who would like to read more.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1986


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1986

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