DARKNESS AT NIGHT: A Riddle of the Universe by Edward Harrison

DARKNESS AT NIGHT: A Riddle of the Universe

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In recent years it's been called ""Olbers' Paradox"" after a German physician who in the 18th century observed, ""If there really are suns throughout the whole of infinite space. . .their number must be infinite and the whole vault of heaven will appear as bright as the Sun. . ."" In short, there would be no darkness at night. Here, physicist/astronomer Harrison makes this puzzle the foil for a pursuit of the history of cosmology/cosmogony from ancient times to current concepts. This is an interesting conceit, almost opposite to the more grandiose Masks of the Universe (1985), in which Harrison surveyed religion in relation to cosmology. Here he begins by tracing Aristotelian versus Stoical versus Epicurean thinking, in terms of concepts of infinity, celestial spheres, an outer void, and so on, recounting how these ideas were modified by medieval, Renaissance, and latter-day thinkers. He classifies many of the proposed solutions to the paradox into two groups: those that sought to resolve why the light from so many stars falls to reach us (""covered sky"" or missing starlight notions), and those that sought to explain why there were so many holes in space (""uncovered sky"" or where-are-the-missing-stars theories). Once the concept of a static, changeless universe gave way to evolutionary theories that posited not only the birth and death of stars and a finite limit to the speed of light, but also an actual beginning of a now-expanding universe, the riddle could be resolved: We see only the stars whose light now reaches us--far too feeble in total energy to light up the sky. Harrison points out that one of the first to propose this solution was Edgar Allan Poe (in his prose poem Eureka), and highlights the efforts of other less well-known writers and thinkers to solve the puzzle. Clearly fodder for historians of science--especially with the inclusion of original source material, notes, and bibliography. Withal, highly readable for the merely curious and, as well, a good introduction for science students, even at the high-school level.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press