A razzle-dazzle tale of scientific puzzles and sleuths; easily the best popular account of astronomy-in-action since Timothy Ferris' The Red Shift. At the heart of Preston's study, and at the heart of world astronomy, looms the seven-story-high Hale reflecting telescope on Mt. Palomar in southern California. Preston spent over a year living on Palomar, observing and interviewing the scientists and engineers who peer through the Big Eye. We meet Juan Carrasco, a former barber who keeps the one-million-ton device humming on course; Maarten Schmidt, an aristocratic Dutchman who searches for quasars at the rim of the universe when he's not mesmerized by TV wrestling tournaments; Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, a jolly husband-and-wife team hunting for asteroids that might one day smash into the Earth. Astronomers, it seems, come from cracked molds: George Ellery Hale, who designed the Big Eye, received instructions from a personal elf; Hale and most of his followers would certainly applaud one astronomer's comment that ""the only thing the earth is good for is to serve as a platform for a telescope."" Preston brilliantly captures the ambitions, rivalries, successes, and failures of these star-struck men and women. He details the grit and spit of their daily routines, and he delivers succinct, vivid lessons in the basics of modern astronomy: we learn, for instance, that if a black hole the size of a tomato orbited the earth, our planet ""would melt, vaporize, emit X-rays, and churn down the black hole. After the tomato had eaten the earth, the tomato would be a little fatter, tending toward a Bur-pee's Big Boy."" A witty, exciting Baedeker for travelers to the outer limits of the universe.
Pub Date: Nov. 25, 1987
Page Count: -
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown