Light at Night

The Sky at Night: Answers to Questions from Across the Universe, Patrick Moore and Chris North (BBC Books, 2012)

Astronomy, one of the most successful and far-reaching of all sciences, has been largely based on almost nothing. Human beings have pushed their knowledge of the physical universe out over huge stretches of space and time without using anything physical, in the everyday sense of the word. This is because astronomy is largely based on the collection and analysis of tiny, weightless particles known as photons, which can’t be touched, tasted, smelt, or heard, only seen. And sometimes not seen either: visible light is only a small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum occupied by photons at different wavelengths and energies. Move a little in one direction and you meet invisible ultra-violet; move a little in the other direction and you meet invisible infra-red. Move further and you’ll meet radio-waves and gamma-rays. To make all those visible, we need technology, but we also need technology to collect the visible light of dim or distant celestial objects.

That technology is called the telescope and without it modern astronomy wouldn’t exist. The telescope opened a door in the attic of the universe just as the microscope opened a door in the cellar. But astronomy was an advanced subject well before the telescope was invented, in part because it is an essentially simple subject. Unlike human beings and animals, planets and stars behave in relatively stereotyped, predictable ways. That’s why their behaviour is so easily expressed and analysed using mathematics. Thousands of years ago, men could create mathematical models of the universe and accurately predict celestial behaviour in detail. But they couldn’t create mathematical models of animal or human behaviour and make accurate predictions. We still can’t do that, but we’ve getting better and better at applying mathematics to the photons we collect from the sky. Patrick Moore (1923-2012) was the eccentric BBC presenter of a series called The Sky at Night and devoted his life to those photons, particularly the ones that bounced off the surface of the moon. He wasn’t a professional astronomer or an advanced mathematician, but he could recognize the importance of mathematics and the devices that run on it:

What single technological advance over the past 53 years has facilitated the greatest increase in our knowledge and understanding of the cosmos?

Tony Davies (Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex)

I think we’ve got to say here the development of electronics in astronomy. Old-fashioned photography has gone out, and electronic devices have taken over. They have led to amazing advances, in all branches of science, not just astronomy. Coupled with the advances in electronic computing, they have allowed discoveries astronomers could only dream of even as recently as a decade ago. So I must say the advent of the Electronic Age. (“Patrick Moore and the Sky at Night”, pg. 424)

I can almost hear Patrick Moore’s slightly clipped, almost stuttering tones as I read that answer. He was an odd character, but I think he led a worthwhile life and odd characters are attracted to subjects like astronomy. It’s on the philatelic side of science and this description by George Orwell of his job in a bookshop might also apply to astronomy:

Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps — used stamps, I mean. Stamp-collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums. (“Bookshop Memories”, 1936)

Women also mostly fail to see the peculiar charm of astronomy. One of the reasons I like it is that it contains a lot of big ideas and tantalizing possibilities, from the lingering birth-bawl in the Cosmic Microwave Background to the prospect of life beneath the ice-cap of Jupiter’s moon Europa, by way of T.L.P., or Transient Lunar Phenomena, the mysterious fleeting changes that occasionally occur on the moon. This book covers all of those and much more. Another reason I like astronomy is that, so far, it hasn’t often involved killing things and cutting them up. Or worse, not killing them and still cutting them up. H.G. Wells couldn’t have written The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) about an astronomer and part of H.P. Lovecraft’s genius was to combine the grandeurs and glories of astronomy with the intimacy and viscerality of biology. Lovecraft would certainly have liked this book. This sounds like a giant cosmic conspiracy right out of a story like “Dreams in the Witch House” (1932):

…our Galaxy is moving relative… to the Universe… at a speed of around 600 km/s… The cause of the motion, enigmatically known as the “Great Attractor”, was a mystery for several decades, partly because whatever is causing it is hidden behind the material in the disc of our Galaxy. The source of the motion is now thought to be a massive cluster of galaxies in the constellation of Norma, which is attracting not just our Galaxy and its immediate neighbours, but also the much larger Virgo cluster. (“Cosmology: The Expansion of the Universe”, pg. 208)

It’s a large and complicated universe out there and it’s amazing that we’ve managed to learn so much about it from our own tiny corner, using mostly nothing but light and working mostly nowhere but the earth itself. But that is the power of mathematics: Archimedes said of levers that, given a place to stand, he could move the world. Using the lever of mathematics, men can move the universe standing only in their own heads. The co-author of this book, Dr Chris North of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, is one of those men. He does the heavy intellectual lifting here, answering the most advanced questions, but I’m sure that he would acknowledge that Patrick Moore was one of the world’s greatest popularizers of astronomy. The questions themselves range from the naïve to the nuanced, the elementary to the exoplanetary. But I was surprised, given that this is a book issued by the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, that almost all of them seemed to be asked by white males, sometimes from hideously unvibrant parts of Britain like County Durham. Was there no edict to invent some astrophile Ayeshas and Iqbals from Bradford and some budding Afro-physicists from Brixton?

Perhaps there was, but Moore ignored it. He was an old-fashioned character with old-fashioned views, after all, and he says here that he was introduced to astronomy by a book, G.F. Chambers’ The Story of the Solar System, that was published in 1898 (pg. 409). So his astronomy touched three centuries. He also met three very important men: Orville Wright, the first man to fly properly; Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space; and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Those were three steps towards our permanent occupation of space. To understand what attracts men there and the questions they hope to answer, this book is a good place to start.

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