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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Day We Found the Universe - Marcia Bartusiak This book provides a virtual front row seat to the discoveries of facts about the universe that were bigger, stranger, and more spectacular than anybody could have imagined at the beginning of the 20th Century. Today the newness has worn off of such terms as expanding universe, space-time continuum, and multiple galaxies. So it's good to imagine the excitement that must have been felt when these words were first uttered. If these concepts seem unfathomable now, they were even more unbelievable then.

This book covers the professional biographies of multiple individuals who played important roles in the advancement of astronomy from 1900 to 1930. Consequently the book's structure reminds me of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals where she provided multiple mini-biographies of Lincoln's cabinet. The author, Marcia Bartusiak, in this book skillfully hops from one personality to another, each mini-biography being told chronologically, but generally jumping backward in time when changing from one astronomer to another. The narrative is written with such skill that it's hard to imagine it being told in any other way.

Of course Edwin Hubble ends up being the star in the end. But the service provided by this book is to tell the story of others who provided the base of knowledge upon which Hubble was able to build. Among the personalities involved, Hubble was not the most likeable person to select if one were choosing a storybook hero. He was physically attractive, but a stuffed-shirt guilty of some boorish behavior. Nevertheless, in addition to being very intelligent, he had the luck of being at the right place at the right time. All the others in this story were very intelligent people, and there were several who could have achieved the findings regarding the size of the universe before Hubble, but for various reasons didn't do it.

The following quote from the book provides a good summary of the excitement and significance of the time.

"...perhaps never again will astronomy face such a dramatic shift in its conception of the universe. It took only three short decades―from 1900 to 1930, ... ―to make this mind-altering transition. The Milky Way, once the universe's lone inhabitant floating in an ocean of darkness, was suddenly joined by billions of other star-filled islands, arranged outward as far as telescopes could peer. ... Astronomers barely had time to adjust to this astounding celestial vastness when they were faced with the knowledge that space-time ... was expanding in all directions ...

Conservative religious people who feel that science is always chipping away at their views of the universe should remember that when evidence of the "Big Bang" was first reported that many religious people enthusiastically welcomed the news as vindication of their views about creation. This is a reminder that science goes where the evidence leads, and occasionally science and religious myths may end up in the same ball park (metaphorically speaking).

One of the individuals who could have beaten Hubble to his findings was Harlow Shapley. Unfortunately, he was so convinced of the single galaxy model that he didn't look for contrary evidence. When he first received a letter from Hubble describing his initial findings, Shapley was quoted as saying, "the letter has destroyed my universe!" The book's narrative goes on to say, "Once proven wrong, ...(Shapley)... didn't look back and quickly adjusted to the new cosmic landscape, soon becoming its most boisterous promoter."

Here's my favorite quotation by Harlow Shapley from his 1969 memoir:
"The solar system is off center and consequently man is too."

The above quotation is a comment about the discovery that the solar system is not located at the center of our galaxy. And for that matter, the Milky Way Galaxy is only one of many billions of galaxies and isn't at the center of anything, least of all the universe. So if God created the universe for the exclusive enjoyment of earthlings, he/she/it apparently selected an arrangement that emphasized our insignificance. After Copernicus discovered that the earth wasn't in the center of the solar system, we should have known that there was going to be more news headed in that direction.

The following is from the author's blog:
"... taking the Copernican principle to its finale―our universe may not be the only one. As physicists attempt to construct a theory that unifies all the forces of nature, one theme repeatedly arises: that additional cosmic realms may be lurking in other dimensions. We could be part of the multiverse; the Big Bang might have occurred when universes outside our dimensional borders bumped into one another."