[REVIEW] “Cosmic Sculptures” Cosmic Clouds 3-D: Where Stars Are Born

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Book Review

Cosmic Clouds 3-D: Where Stars Are Born by David J. Eicher, Brian May, and J.P. Metsävainio

Review by David H. DeVorkin
Published in Quest Volume: 27 #4 (2020)

This lavishly illustrated large format (9×12 inches) book is a romp. Written by Astronomy magazine editor David J. Eicher, creatively orchestrated by the multi-talented Brian May, and illustrated mainly by Finnish astrophotographer J.P. Metsävainio, it starts off with accessible chapters on the formation of the elements, the lives of the stars, and the ever-present question “are we alone?” These set the reader and viewer up for “A Trip through the Milky Way.” Written in a very friendly and informal manner it is filled with fascinating tidbits about stars, clusters of stars, nebulae, the space between the stars, the interstellar medium, and even some of the historical characters who pondered them, from William Herschel to Wilhelmina Fleming and Annie J. Cannon. The book is dominated by double spread pages of celestial objects rich-in-color, but the most fascinating are the smaller double images by Metsävainio that, with the aid of an included viewer, provide an inkling of 3-dimensional depth to dozens of stellar, interstellar, and galactic objects.

The authors make it clear in several places that these 3-D images are impossible visions given the vast distances of the objects, and they make considerable effort to explain how the images are created to simulate depth. All-in-all they do a good job of preparing the reader for this illusion. The only minor flub is in the “Preface” where they suggest that “The result is the effect one might get if we were flying through space toward them, and through them” [6]. This unfortunately provokes a StarTrekkian visage of travelling through the nebulae as if they were terrestrial clouds, something that surely has amused readers of Quest in past encounters with Hollywood visions of space travel.

There are many cute surprises in this book, including a two-page photograph of the authors at Meteor Crater, holding a copy of one of their previous 3-D books, and even a short appendix on “How to Choose a Backyard Telescope” featuring four examples of commercial Celestron products. Metsävainio adds a very helpful and lucid chapter “How the Stereos Were Made” displaying some 18 stereoscopic pairs in addition to the over four dozen pairs throughout the book. Mastering the included “Lite Owl” 3-D viewer from May’s London Stereoscopic Company took a bit of practice; careful reading of the instructions helped.

The informative and accessible text is nicely woven through the many images the producers added along with Metsävainio’s 3-D displays. They come from a wide range of “astroimagers” and “astrohobbyists” including professional astronomers at the Lowell and University of Arizona observatories, as well as some physicians and a pastor among those whose professions are identified. Others are well-known imagers whose works have appeared in Astronomy magazine and elsewhere. Only Metsävainio is portrayed with his sophisticated telescope, situated as he states at the center of the sizable city of Oulu. Because of this, he employs narrowband filters to block out the light pollution, a well-known technique. What comes next, however, is truly creative. He collects data on the nature and structure of his objects, including the relative distances of stars in the field, as well as the relative distances of visible streams of gas and dust. He then constructs a “coarse skeleton model” of the object by adjusting the relative positions of these features in a duplicate image. Bringing them together with the “Lite Owl” creates the sense of depth. He sees this as more than a technical stunt, regarding it “much like creating a sculpture on a cosmic scale” [168]. I would agree.


About the Book

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Title: Cosmic Clouds 3-D: Where Stars Are Born
Authors: David J. Eicher, Brian May, and J.P. Metsävainio
Publisher: MIT Press and the London Stereoscopic Co.
Year: 2020
ISBN: 978-0-262-04402-8
Pages: 192


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  • Publication Year: 2020
  • Publisher: Quest
  • Copyright Status: Copyrighted
  • Copyright Holder: SPACE 3.0
  • Language: English
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