Cosmology--the study of the universe and its origin--is perhaps science’s grandest stage. But galaxies don’t lend themselves to experiments as, say, atoms do.
As a result, cosmology has historically occupied a place on the edge of science, say MIT physicist and essayist Alan Lightman and MIT graduate student Roberta Brawer in “Origins,” a fascinating, surprisingly accessible and altogether human collection of conversations with today’s leading cosmologists.
The field began to gain respectability rapidly in the 1920s, Lightman tells us, when astronomer Edwin Hubble made two key discoveries at Palomar Observatory.
First, the universe extends far beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, which had been thought to be all there was. Second, the universe is expanding, not static as had been surmised. Hubble was the first to see that the stars, no matter which way he looked, were all moving at high speed away from him.
Alan Lightman earned a large and enthusiastic following among fans of popular science writing with the marvelously warm, personal essays on physics and other topics he wrote for Science 80s, a magazine bought and killed by Time, Inc., in 1986.
His essays have been collected in two previous books: “Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe” (1984) and “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court” (1986). Lightman has also co-authored or otherwise contributed importantly to four textbooks on physics and astronomy, subjects he used to teach at Harvard. Now, having passed what he calls his “senior” years as a physicist (i.e. mid-30s), he teaches mostly science writing at MIT.
“Origins” is composed of a lucid 49-page introduction to the field of cosmology, followed by question and answer interviews with 27 prominent cosmologists. A useful annotated bibliography of popular books on cosmology and a wonderfully clear glossary of technical terms round out the book. The book not only makes excellent use of Lightman’s remarkable talent for explaining, it also allows him to exercise another of his peculiar strengths: looking at the human side of science.
From what Lightman tells us about his cosmologists’ family backgrounds, for instance, cosmology seems to be an equal opportunity profession--within limits set by environment and individual aptitude.
One of the most striking examples is that of Don Page, now a professor of physics at Penn State University. Page grew up in a succession of Eskimo villages in Alaska, where his missionary parents taught elementary school. He left Alaska for the first time after graduating from high school to attend a small liberal arts Christian college in Missouri. As a graduate student, he made a quantum leap to Caltech. There he met the eminent astrophysicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking, who was a visiting scholar at the institute. Page later joined Hawking in England, and the two men co-authored some landmark papers.
Perhaps the most consistent similarity in the backgrounds of the front-rank cosmologists interviewed for the book is their parents’ role in their early education.
Margaret Geller, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, recalls that her father gave her toys that helped her visualize abstract, geometric shapes in three dimensions--an invaluable skill in mathematics, physics and cosmology, Lightman says.
“He gave me toys where you could connect flat shapes up with rubber bands to make solid figures . . . and he’d explain to me the relationships between the things I built and things in the world,” Geller recounts.
She is now known for her extraordinary power of visualization, Lightman says, and particularly for having discovered, from reams of computer data, that some galaxies appear not to be evenly distributed throughout the cosmos, as was widely thought, but rather to be located on the surfaces of immense bubble-like structures.
Concepts such as this one, and many others in the book, may stagger the average reader on first impact. Lightman is perfectly at ease with them. Arcane cosmic phenomena such as black holes, where a teaspoon of matter weighs more than a billion tons, are meat and drink to him. Readers lucky enough to sit near him at this intellectual banquet table will share the physicist’s exquisite pleasure at the feast.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews “Declarations of Independence” by Howard Zinn (Harper Collins).