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Searching for Meaning in the Milky Way

by Ken Croswell

Pub Date: May 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-385-47213-7
Publisher: Anchor

 Though well-informed, this history of astronomy caters to the insider rather than the intrigued novice. Science journalist Croswell presents a history of the Milky Way focusing on the changing theories about its origin, age, size, and shape. He explains why some stars are more luminous than others and describes the discovery that key elements like helium, lithium, and hydrogen were formed ``in the fiery aftermath of the big bang.'' In early chapters he offers simple, elucidating metaphors to make his sophisticated material more familiar. But this kind of translation is quickly abandoned, and the book contains too much math and physics and too little explanation of how the theories connect and what's at stake to appeal to readers with little background in astronomy. It becomes clear that, as he writes, the story of the Milky Way is a ``deeply human story, full of colorful and controversial characters,'' but Croswell takes the stance of an insider rather than a journalist, providing only snippets and sketchy portraits. Some stories are fleshed out, like the collaboration of astronomers E. Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle (commonly known as BÞFH) on the theory that the elements originated in the stars; the Nobel Prize that went to Fowler alone for this work; and the obstacles women faced breaking down the sexist barriers in astronomy. Croswell's narrative of these events provides a rare and welcome balance to his zeal for technical detail. This work will leave readers feeling as though they are looking at the heavens through the wrong end of a telescope.