Performativizing Papyrocentricity #52

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Reds in the HeadThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

Canine the BarbarianThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

Star-StuffThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

An Island of Her OwnThe Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #48

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Vois la ReinePhilip’s Moon Observer’s Guide, Peter Grego (Philip’s 2015)

Gods of FireVolcano Discoveries: A Photographic Journey around the World, Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid Smet (New Holland 2015)

Chemical TalesRocks and Minerals, Ronald Louis Bonewitz (Dorling Kindersley 2012)

Knyghtes of the RoyalmeMalory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford University Press 1977)

Alfredo to ZinedineFootball’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #37

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Maths and Marmosets – The Great Mathematical Problems: Marvels and Mysteries of Mathematics, Ian Stewart (Profile Books 2013)

Be Ear Now – Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, Trevor Cox (Vintage 2015)

Exquisite Bulgarity – The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings, Mark Kushner (Simon & Schuster 2015)

Stellar StoryDiscovering the Universe: The Story of Astronomy, Paul Murdin (Andre Deutsch 2014)

Terms of EndrearmentShe Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #23

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #19

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Ghosts in the Cathedral

Front cover of The Neutrino Hunters by Ray JayawardhanaThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013)

An easy read on a difficult topic: Ray Jayawardhana takes some complicated ideas and makes them a pleasure to absorb. Humans have only recently discovered neutrinos, but neutrinos have always known us from the inside:

…about a hundred trillion neutrinos produced in the nuclear furnace at the Sun’s core pass through your body every second of the day and night, yet they do no harm and leave no trace. During your entire lifetime, perhaps one neutrino will interact with an atom in your body. Neutrinos travel right through the Earth unhindered, like bullets cutting through a fog. (ch. 1, “The Hunt Heats Up”, pg. 9)

In a way, “ghost particle” is a misnomer: to neutrinos, we are the ghosts, because they pass through all solid matter almost as though it’s not there:

Neutrinos are elementary particles, just like electrons that buzz around atomic nuclei or quarks that combine to make protons and neutrons. They are fundamental building blocks of matter, but they don’t remain trapped inside atoms. Also unlike their subatomic cousins, neutrinos carry no electric charge, have a tiny mass and hardly ever interact with other particles. A typical neutrino can travel through a light-year’s worth of lead without interacting with any atoms. (ch. 1, pg. 7)

That’s a lot of lead, but a little of neutrino. With a different ratio – a lot less matter and a lot more neutrino – it’s possible to detect them on earth. Because so many are passing through the earth at any moment, a large piece of matter watched for long enough will eventually catch a ghost. So neutrino-hunters sink optical sensors into the transparent ice of the Antarctic and fill huge tanks with carbon tetrachloride or water. Then they wait:

Every once in a while, a solar neutrino would collide with an electron in the water and propel it forward, like a billiard ball that’s hit head-on. The fast-moving electron would create an electromagnetic “wake”, or cone of light, along its path. The resulting pale blue radiation is called “Cherenkov radiation”, after the Russian physicist Pavel Cherenkov, who investigated the phenomenon. Phototubes lining the inside walls of the tank would register each light flash and reveal an electron’s interaction with a neutrino. The Kamiokande provided two extra bits of information to researchers: from the direction of the light cone scientists would infer the direction of the incoming neutrino and from its intensity they could determine the neutrino’s energy. (ch. 4, “Sun Underground”, pg. 95)

That’s a description of a neutrino-hunt in “3,000 tons of pure water” in a mine “150 miles west of Tokyo”: big brains around the world are obsessed with the “little neutral one”. That’s what “neutrino” means in Italian, because the particle was named by the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-54) after the original proposal, “neutron”, was taken over by another, and much bigger, particle with no electric charge. Fermi was one of the greatest physicists of all time and oversaw the first “controlled nuclear chain reaction” at the University of Chicago in 1942. That is, he helped build the first nuclear reactor. Like the sun, reactors are rich sources of neutrinos and because neutrinos pass easily through any form of shielding, a reactor can’t be hidden from a neutrino-detector. Nor can a supernova: one of the most interesting sections of the book discusses the way exploding stars flood the universe with a lot of light and a lot more neutrinos:

Alex Friedland of the Los Alamos National Laboratory explained that a supernova is in essence a “neutrino bomb”, since the explosion releases a truly staggering number – some 10^58, or ten billion trillion trillion trillion trillion – of these particles. … In fact, the energy emitted in the form of neutrinos within a few seconds is several hundred times what the Sun emits in the form of photons over its entire lifetime of nearly 10 billion years. What’s more, during the supernova explosion, 99 percent of the precursor star’s gravitational binding energy goes into the neutrinos of all flavors, while barely half a percent appears as visible light. (ch. 6, “Exploding Star”, pg. 125)

That light is remarkably bright, but it can be blocked by interstellar dust. The neutrinos can’t, so they’re a way to detect supernovae that are otherwise invisible. However, Supernova 1987A was highly visible: a lot of photons were captured by a lot of telescopes when it flared in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nearly four hours before that, a few neutrino-detectors had captured far fewer neutrinos:

Detecting a grand total of two dozen particles may not sound like much to crow about. But the significance of these two dozen neutrino events is underlined by the fact that they have been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers over the years. Supernova 1987A was the first time that we had observed neutrinos coming from an astronomical source other than the Sun. (ch. 6, pg. 124)

The timing of the two dozen was very important: it came before the visible explosion and “meant that astrophysicists like Bahcall and his colleagues were right about what happened during a supernova explosion” (pg. 123). That’s John Bahcall (1931-2005), an American who wanted to be a rabbi but ended up a physicist after taking a science course during his philosophy degree at Berkeley. He had predicted how many solar neutrinos his colleague Raymond Davis (1914-2006) should detect interacting with atoms in a giant tank of “dry-cleaning fluid”, as carbon tetrachloride is also known. But Davis found “only a third as many as Bahcall’s model calculation predicted” (ch. 4, pg. 90). Was Davis missing some? Was Bahcall’s model wrong? The answer would take decades to arrive, as Davis refined his apparatus and Bahcall re-checked his calculations. This book is about several kinds of interaction: between neutrinos and atoms, between theory and experiment, between mathematics and matter. Neutrinos were predicted with maths before they were detected in matter. The Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58) produced the prediction; Davis and others did the detecting.

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral (click for larger image)

Pauli was famously witty; another big brain in the book, the Englishman Paul Dirac (1902-84), was famously taciturn. Big brains are often strange ones too. That’s part of why they’re attracted to the very strange world of atomic physics. Jayawardhana also discusses the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-?1938), who disappeared at the age of thirty-two, and his colleague Bruno Pontecorvo (1913-93), who defected to the Soviet Union. Neutrinos are fascinating and so are the humans who have hunted for them. So is the history that surrounded them. Quantum physics was convulsing science at the same time as communism and Nazism were convulsing Europe. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) said: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Modern physicists have been called a new priesthood, devoted to lofty and remote ideas incomprehensible and irrelevant to ordinary people. But ordinary people fund the devices the priests build to pursue their ideas with. And some of the neutrino-detectors pictured here are as huge and awe-inspiring as cathedrals. Some might say they’re as futile as cathedrals too. But if understanding the universe isn’t enough in itself, there may be practical uses for neutrinos on the way. At present, we have to communicate over the earth’s surface; a beam of neutrinos can travel right through the earth.

The universe is also a dangerous place: some scientists theorized that the neutrino deficit in Ray Davis’s experiments meant the sun was about to go nova. It wasn’t, but neutrinos may help the human race spot other dangers and exploit new opportunities. We still know only a fraction of what’s out there and the ghost particle is a messenger from the heart not only of supernovae and the sun, but also of the earth itself. There’s radioactivity deep in the earth, so there are neutrinos streaming upward. As methods of detecting them get better, we’ll understand the interior of the earth better. But Jayawardhana doesn’t discuss another possibility: that we might even discover advanced life down there, living under huge pressures at very high temperatures, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in his short-story “The Fires Within” (1949).

Clarke also suggested that life could exist inside the sun. There’s presently no way of testing his ideas, but neutrinos may carry even more secrets than standard science has guessed. Either way, I think Clarke would have enjoyed this book and perhaps Jayawardhana, who’s of Sri Lankan origin, was influenced by him. Jayawardhana’s writing certainly reminds me of Clarke’s writing. It’s clear, enthusiastic and a pleasure to read, wearing its learning lightly and carrying you easily over vast stretches of space and time. The Neutrino Hunters is an excellent introduction to the hunters, the hunted and the history, with a good glossary and index too.

Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Think Ink – Review of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know

Bri’ on the Sky

Front cover of Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen

Bri’ Eyes the Sky

Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins 2010)

One of the most powerful images in this book is also one of the most understated. It’s an artist’s impression of a dim star seen over the curve of a dwarf-planet called Sedna. The star is a G-type called Sol. We on Earth know it better as the sun. Sedna is a satellite of the sun too, but it’s much, much further out than we are. It takes 12,000 years to complete a single orbit and its surface is a biophobic -240°C. It’s so distant that sunrise is star-rise and it wasn’t discovered until 2003. But the sun’s gravity still keeps it in place: one of the weakest forces in nature is one of the most influential. That’s one important message in an understated, crypto-Lovecraftian image.

Sedna has been there, creeping around its dim mother-star, since long before man evolved. It will still be there long after man disappears, voluntarily or otherwise. This frozen dwarf is a good symbol of the vastness of the universe and its apparent indifference to life. We don’t seem to interest the universe at all, but the universe certainly interests us. Wonders of the Solar System is a good introduction to our tiny corner of it, describing some fundamentals of astronomy with the help of spectacular photographs and well-designed illustrations. You can learn how fusion powers the sun, how Mars lost its atmosphere and how there might be life beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s satellite Europa. The text is simple, but not simplistic, though I think the big name on the cover did little of the writing: this book is probably much more Cohen than Cox. Either way, I enjoyed reading the words and not just looking at the pictures, all the way from star-dim Sedna (pp. 26-7) to “Scars on Mars” (pp. 220-1) by way of “The most violent place in the solar system” (pp. 198-9), a.k.a. Jupiter’s gravity-flexed, volcano-pocked satellite Io.

Pockmarked moon -- the Galilean satellite Io

Pockmarked moon — the Galilean satellite Io

Everything described out there is linked to something down here, because that’s how it was done in the television series. Linking the sky with the earth allowed the BBC to film the genial and photogenic physicist Brian Cox in various exotic settings: Hawaii, India, East Africa, Iceland and so on. I’ve not seen any of Cox’s TV-work, but he seems an effective popularizer of science. And the pretty-boy shots here add anthropology to the astronomy. What is the scientific point of Cox striding away in an artistic blur over the Sahara desert (pg. 103), staring soulfully into the distance near the Iguaçu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine border (pg. 37) or gazing down into the Grand Canyon, hips slung, hands in pockets (pg. 163)? There isn’t a scientific point: the photos are there for his fans, particularly his female ones. He’s a sci-celeb, a geek with chic, and we’re supposed to see the sky through Bri’s eyes.

But he’s also a liberal working for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, so he’ll be happy with the prominent photo early on: Brian holding protective glasses over the eyes of a dusky-skinned child during a solar eclipse in India. The same simul-scribes’ Wonders of Life (Collins 2013), another book-of-the-BBC-series, opens with a similarly allophilic allophoto: a dusky-skinned Mexican crowned in monarch butterflies. This is narcissistic and patronizing, but the readiness of whites to “Embrace the Other” helps explain science, because science involves looking away from the self, the tribe and the quotidian quest for status and survival. Of course, Cox and Cohen would gasp with horror at the idea of racial differences explaining big things like science and politics. Cox would be sincere in his horror. I’m not so sure about Cohen.

But there are wonders within us as well as without us and though you won’t hear about them on the BBC, the tsunami of HBD, or research into human bio-diversity, is now rolling ashore. It will sweep away almost all of Cox’s and Cohen’s politics, but leave most of their science intact. It isn’t a coincidence that the rings of Saturn were discovered by the Italian Galileo and explained by the Dutchman Huygens and the Italian Cassini, or that the photos of Saturn here were taken by a space-probe launched by white Americans. But the United States has much less money now for space exploration. That’s explained by race too: as the US looks less like its founders, it looks less like a First World nation too. It’s fun to see the world through Bri’s eyes, but he’s careful not to look at everything that’s out there.

Standing on the Sky

Field Guide to Meteors and Meteorites
Field Guide to Meteors and Meteorites, O. Richard Norton and Lawrence A. Chitwood (2008)

If you want to touch something from outer space, simply form one of your hands into a fist. You will then be touching star-stuff, because every atom in every human was once heavenly. We eat star-cinders, breathe star-fumes and stand on the sky, because all terrestrial matter was once extra-terrestrial. This is because the fusional furnace of a star, unlike an ordinary furnace, creates complexity out of simplicity. Simple atoms like hydrogen and helium go in, complex atoms like oxygen and iron come out. I think that’s one of the important messages to take from this book: Up There is down here and always has been. O. Richard Norton is writing about stones that are special because they fall from the sky, but sometimes those stones are very hard to tell from ordinary stones, as the section called “Meteorwrongs” explains next to a photo of two very similar rocks:

One of these rocks is a meteorite. Note the rounded knobbly shapes in both that look like clusters of grapes. Mundrabilla (right) is an Australian iron meteorite. The knuckle-like knobs are large, randomly orientated iron-nickel crystals of taenite that stand out due to weathering. A pair of Moqui marbles (left) are concretions weathered out of Navajo Sandstone in the southwestern United States. The sand is glued together by the iron oxides, hematite and goethite. They are a terrestrial analogue to the hematite-cemented Martian blueberries seen from the Martian rover Opportunity in 2004. (“A Gallery of Meteorwrongs”, pg. 178)

Unless you’re an expert, distinguishing special sky-stones from ordinary earth-stones can be difficult. But are any stones really ordinary? I don’t think so. They all come ultimately from the belly of a star and they all raise this fascinating question: what is matter? The ultimate answer to that may be: Matter is mathematics. But maths is always present when you study matter and its behaviour, so there is a lot of maths in this book. In fact, the whole book is mathematical, because it’s all about chemistry, geology, petrography and various forms of physics: orbital mechanics, thermodynamics, optics and even acoustics:

The sound of a fireball is an altogether different experience. It is an eerie experience when a fireball begins its rapid journey across the sky. Trees and tall buildings cast long moving shadows… Seconds go by and not a sound is heard. Suddenly, without warning, the fireball explodes, scattering myriads of fragments that briefly maintain their courses among the stars. All of this happens in absolute silence. Seconds and minutes go by. The fireball vanishes. Still, silence. Then, when you least expect it, a tremendous series of explosions rock the silence. The fireball’s shock wave has finally arrived, announcing its presence by a series of ground-shaking sonic booms. These sounds are caused by pressure waves generated in the atmosphere by the hypersonic flight of the fireball. (chapter 3, “Meteoroids to Meteors: Lessons in Survival”, pg. 45)

Fireballs are rare, but meteors fall constantly and many people watch for them and photograph them, so this book is also about sky-stones you can see falling, not just about sky-stones you can pick up or stand on. After all, some never reach the ground. Huge numbers of meteors fall individually and unpredictably, but there are also periodic meteor-showers named after the constellations they seem to fall from, like the Aquarids, Leonids and Taurids, and associated with the debris-trail of comets. These can also be tracked using radar:

In the 1940s military radar operators noticed that meteors caused interruptions in high-frequency broadcasting reception, taking the form of whistles that rapidly dropped in pitch. Most individual meteoroids are too small to reflect radar waves back to the ground. Instead, radar waves sent from the ground were detected as they reflected off much larger targets, in this case, columns of ionized gas left in the wake of a meteor, formed when the particles evaporated passing through the Earth’s upper atmosphere. (ch. 1, “Interplanetary Dust and Meteors”, pg. 19)

In a way, radar was detecting the death-cries of the “Ancient Fragments of the Solar System” described in part one of this book: the asteroidal and cometary grit in the cosmic clockwork of the sun and planets. Bits of that grit have been falling to earth throughout man’s existence, but some sceptics, inspired by Newton’s apparent conquest of the heavens, decided it wasn’t there after all. When two scientists from Connecticut reported a meteorite fall in 1807, Thomas Jefferson famously said: “I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” He wasn’t just wrong, he was unimaginative too. Two hundred years later, we know better, but some knew better more than two millennia ago:

Diogenites are named for the fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher, Diogenes of Apollonia, considered to be the first person to suggest that meteorites actually came from beyond the Earth. They are called Plutonic since their origin appears to be plutonic rocks deep below the eucrite crust of the asteroid 4 Vesta. (ch. 5, “Primitive and Differentiated Meteorites: Asteroidal Achondrites”, pg. 122)

So fragments of asteroid existed on the earth before astronomers discovered the existence of asteroids. Fragments of Mars and the moon have been found on earth too, as Norton describes: big meteoric impacts there have blasted Mars- and moon-stuff free and some of it has fallen here. But Diogenes’ ancient insight about the origin of sky-stones didn’t influence their name: meteors are so-called because they were thought to be atmospheric phenomena. That is, a shooting star, or meteor, was seen as part of meteorology, not astronomy. When science learnt better, it created two more terms: meteoroid, meaning the physical object in space, and meteorite, meaning the physical object once it’s landed on the earth. You may have meteorites on your windowsills, because some of them are very small: IDPs, or Interplanetary/Interstellar Dust Particles, like the ones that stream from the tail of a comet as it approaches the sun. These drift to earth rather than drop, but they’re hard to tell from terrestrial dust. To study them more easily, scientists had to get away from the surface of the earth and Richard Norton describes how the “University of Washington’s Interplanetary Dust Laboratory” began to use “high flying aircraft” in the 1970s to collect this cometary dandruff (ch. 1, “Interplanetary Dust and Meteors”, pg. 9). Since then, the Stardust probe has actually collected samples from “the periodic Comet Wild 2 (pronounced ‘Vilt’)” and returned them to earth.

This is one part of astronomy that isn’t reliant on the ephemerality of photons, but photons can still tell us a lot about the chemistry of comets and asteroids, because light is influenced by the nature of the matter it bounces off or shines from:

In 1970, T.B. McCord and his coworkers at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, University of Hawaii, made astronomical history when they were the first to recognize similar characteristics between the spectra of 4 Vesta and a specific meteorite type. They compared the reflection spectra of the Nuevo Laredo achondrite with the reflection spectra of 4 Vesta. (ch. 2, “Meteorites: Fragments of Asteroids”, pg. 33)

Photons are important in other ways, as you’ll find in chapter 11, “From Hand Lens to Microscope”. Here astronomy meets petrography, or the study of patterns and colours in slices of rock under high magnification. The photographs in this chapter are some of the strangest and most beautiful in the book: “A calcium-rich clinopyroxene glows with bright second order interference colors” (pg. 218). But meteorites can be beautiful to the naked eye too, though sometimes they have to be cut open to become so. There’s gold and silver on page 171, for example, where you’ll see photographs of meteorites like:

Esquel, a main group pallasite. It was found in Argentina 1951 by a farmer while digging for a water tank. The meteorite shows beautiful yellowish green olivine (peridot) crystals… The Glorieta Mountain meteorite. When cut into a thin slab, polished and lighted from behind, this becomes one of the world’s most beautiful pallasites. (ch. 8, “Differentiated Meteorites: Stony-Irons”)

Pallasites aren’t named after the asteroid Pallas, but after the “German naturalist and explorer, Peter Simon Pallas”, who collected samples of a “1,600 lb meteorite found in 1749 near Krasnojarsk, Siberia” (pg. 168). Nearly two hundred years later, the Sikhote-Alin mountains in Siberia experienced a much bigger meteorite, seen as an “enormous fire-ball” on February 12, 1947, then collected as “thousands of beautifully sculpted iron meteorites… Today, Sikhote-Alin meteorites are highly prized in public and private collections throughout the world” (pg. 47). They’re black, not colourful, but the “flow-patterns” and regmaglypts – depressions like thumb-prints – caused by heat make them like attractive modernist sculpture. That Siberian fireball is described in in chapter 3, “Meteoroids to Meteors: Lessons in Survival”, which is about what happens to meteoroids as they plunge through the atmosphere. They heat up and sometimes break up, but they aren’t always sizzling when they hit the ground:

The temperature at 50,000-ft [15-km] altitude is about -50°F [-45°C]. This low temperature aids in rapidly chilling the falling rock. Long before hitting the ground the meteorite’s surface temperature has been reduced to between lukewarm and stone cold. The meteorite may even be coated with a thin layer of ice. In fact, some meteorites have been found minutes after landing, resting on top of a snow bank – without melting the snow. (pg. 45)

But sometimes meteorites are found millennia after landing, so the effects of water and weather are an important topic for meteorite-hunters. So are the effects of magnetism: you can use metal-detectors to hunt for meteorites, as Norton describes in chapter 10, “In the Field”. This is a field-guide, after all, but “field” can mean African desert, Swedish pine-forest and Arctic or Antarctic ice-sheet:

In the continental United States, the best hunting ground is in the southwestern part of the Mojave desert of southern California, where vegetation is relatively sparse and the climate is dry. Look for an old surface, one that has been exposed for a long time. Old dry lakes can be a good place to search. Many meteorites have been found in Rosamond, Muroc, and Lucerne dry lakes. (pg. 183)

The American meteorite-hunter Steve Arnold found his record-breaking “1,400 lb Brenham orientated pallasite” another way: “he dug it up from a depth of seven-and-a-half feet, locating it with the help of a high-tech metal detector” in 2005 (pg. 187). “Brenham orientated” is a reference to the way the meteorite was shaped by “ablation”, or the “removal and loss of… material by heating and vaporization” during its fall to earth (“Glossary”, pg. 267). But meteoroids aren’t just shaped by their encounter with the earth: they can also shape the earth, both geologically and biologically. The earth bears the scars of many past impacts, some of them cataclysmic in scale and epoch-making in their effects. Would man the mammal now rule the earth and watch the sky if it hadn’t been for the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? Or would an advanced, intelligent species of reptile be collecting and analysing meteorites now?

Questions like that aren’t just of historic interest: stones that fall from the sky are of huge practical importance, because big ones can wipe out not just cities and civilizations, but entire species, including Homo sapiens. The sky gave birth to all life on earth, because without the chemicals created there, life wouldn’t exist here. Life may even have begun there, but the sky has regularly committed infanticide too and man’s name is definitely on the hit-list. Sooner or later another giant sky-stone will hit the earth and cause megadeaths or worse, unless we spot it en route and stop it. That’s another message to take from this book: some meteoroids are beauties and some are beasts. All of them are interesting. This book explains how, what, where, and why, all the way from aphelia and bolides to xenoliths and the Zodiacal light.

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.