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Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed Our View of the Universe by Linda Schweizer
David H. DeVorkin
Quest Volume: 28 #2 (2021)
Cosmic Odyssey, florid and breezy, is chock full of fascinating detail and technical insights about the discoveries modern astronomers have made using the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain in Southern California over the past 70 years. The author received her PhD in astronomy from Berkeley in 1984 studying the mass/ luminosity ratios of galaxies using several large telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter American Observatory in Chile. She then became a fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and, after raising a large family, turned to science writing, teaching at Caltech. She later was awarded a visiting scholar post there and this gave her the time and access to Palomar and its staff, whom she interviewed extensively gaining a deep appreciation of what it meant to be able to use what was then the world’s largest optical telescope.
This background on the author is critical to appreciating the lively and personal character of the book. First, it is not a history of the planning, funding, and building of the telescope and does not cite the books that do cover the history, like Helen Wright or Ronald Florence.1 There is some mention of George Ellery Hale and his vision and drive that led to the telescope, and the growth of instrumentation on the mountain, like the Schmidt cameras that produced the Palomar Survey as a means to locate objects of interest for the big reflector. But the bulk of her attention is devoted to eleven fascinating subject areas covering how stars live and die, how galaxies form, the discovery of quasars, which she dubs “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” and the recalibration of the Cepheid period-luminosity relation by Walter Baade that significantly altered the so-called “Hubble Constant” yielding, finally, an expansion age of the universe that was older than the Earth and stars, a step toward making cosmology “legitimate.”
Also nicely portrayed was how the Hale telescope has been trained on the nearby universe–the solar system, ranging from the violent character of Jupiter’s “hotspots” to the exploration of the Oort Cloud constituting the outer material shell of the solar system, and the debate over Pluto’s identity, which she titles the “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Readers of Quest who are also curious about the state of ground-based astronomy during the Space Age will find some perspective examples in this book. In the wake of Challenger, astronaut Samuel Durrance turned his attention to develop new ways to overcome the smearing of images by the Earth’s atmosphere from ground-based telescopes. He and a Johns Hopkins colleague created an “adaptive optics” coronagraph to search for exoplanets. They teamed up with Caltech astronomers to use it on Palomar’s 60-inch and were the first to image an elusive “brown dwarf.” To make her point she compares the Palomar image with one taken by Hubble about a year later. The Hubble image is far clearer, of course, but the real story she paints is the inventiveness and persistence of the astronomers.
Quest readers will also appreciate the irony that many if not most of the beautiful color images throughout the book, starting with the frontispiece to Chapter 1: “The Promise,” come not from Palomar but from NASA’s Great Observatories like Hubble and Chandra. This is a personal disappointment because the lavish color images the Palomar telescope produced throughout the 1950s and 1960s were widely distributed by the popular press and, this reviewer can attest, were ardently absorbed by the public as new views of the universe every bit as captivating as what Hubble produced in the 1990s and 2000s. This fact, indeed, captured by the book’s subtitle, is as much a part of the remarkable history of this telescope as were its many scientific discoveries.
1 Ronald Florence, The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
About the Book
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Title: Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe
Author: Linda Schweizer
Publisher: MIT Press
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