Web edition: May 8, 2009
Print edition: May 23, 2009; Vol.175 #11 (p. 35)
Until January 1, 1925, the Milky Way might have been alone. That day, astronomers learned that the universe extends at least a million light-years and the faint lights observed by the world’s largest telescope at the time twinkled from distant galaxies. Essentially, the date marked the universe’s discovery, Bartusiak argues in this history of early 20th century astronomy.
“Our celestial home was suddenly humbled, becoming just one of a multitude of galaxies residing in the vast gulfs of space,” she writes.
But this tale is not about breakthroughs. It focuses on the dramatic insights, sidesteps and missed opportunities, persistence, pride and bits of luck that accompany the scientific process. Edwin Hubble wrote the paper describing the telltale blinks in distant nebula, but he was busy observing and let a colleague read the historic paper. Quite fitting, considering he was not alone in his endeavor.
Details regarding countless other personalities, the interplay between them and the times in which they worked make this story satisfying. Bartusiak, for example, delves into archival material to describe Hubble’s sometimes tense relationship with Harlow Shapley — the two worked together at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory. “Hubble’s affection for wearing jodhpurs, leather puttees, and a beret while observing or going around and saying ‘Bah Jove’ was simply too much for Shapley to bear,” she writes.
Bartusiak’s account never gets boring and never feels anticlimactic. Instead, moments of drama and intimacy make the reader forget, somewhere along the way, the final outcome: The Milky Way is merely one of many stellar collections in a vast universe.
Pantheon Books, 2009, 337 p., $27.95.