THE SOUL OF THE NIGHT: An Astronomical Pilgrimage by Chet Raymo

THE SOUL OF THE NIGHT: An Astronomical Pilgrimage

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

No ordinary guide to the skies, this; Raymo reveals himself to be a sort of heavenly Thoreau, gifted in a prose that celebrates the silence, the solitude and serenity of star-watching. The author, professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, manages the best of all possible worlds--living in a New England village dark enough to allow backyard viewing, yet close enough to his college or other observatories to realize the magnificent time-lapse sequences or brilliant magnifications that present-day technology can offer. What he offers is something of both those worlds, but more: While describing the dimensions of space, the outlying ever-receding galaxies, the black holes, the quasars and other dramatis personae of the skies, he talks simply and eloquently about the beauty and excitement of the personal experience. He recalls a scene from Antonioni's Red Desert and compares it to the familiar high-school experiment of eliminating the sound of an electric bell inside a jar by evacuating air from the container--all this by way of reminding us that silence is relative: Since the advent of radio astronomy, the sky is a ""buzz of hydrogen,"" alive with the ""hiss and sputter of matter intent upon obeying the stochastic laws of quantum mechanics."" The allusions and images tumble across the pages in delightful abundance. The black hole that may be at the center of the Milky Way conjures up Homer's Scylla as well as the Greak Kraken, a Norwegian pre-Moby Dick monster whose risings could cause false shallows, and whose submergings created a whirlpool that drew everything down into it. The qualities of light and color fascinate Raymo. He tells us which stars are orange or red, describes the eerie green light of the Great Orion Nebula, compares stargazing with black-and-white photography--for both demand close attention to color! He is interested in catching the faint zodiacal light, the elusive limb of the new moon, the all-but-invisible cometary head. He follows up later with an essay on darkness, on the conical shape of earth's shadow, indeed of any planet circling its sun. Here he quotes Shelley, ""I spin beneath my pyramid of light, which points into the heavens--dreaming delight."" Elsewhere, Raymo reveals a liking for Rilke and Roethke, but also the obscure Chinese poet or some latter-day naturalist. These references serve to relate sky science to earthly events, to the history of comets and the passing of the seasons, to creatures of the night or to contemporary cosmological controversies. In the end, one realizes how much information has been conveyed--and is all the more appreciative for the lyrical grace that has led the reader to linger and muse over every page.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1985
ISBN: 156101236X
Publisher: Prentice-Hall