ASNSW Book Reviews

“HOW FAR IS UP? - THE MEN WHO MEASURED THE UNIVERSE”

Author: Mary & John Gribbin
Pages: 134
Reviewed by: 1: Nadia Douglass
2: Nigel Eke

Nadia Douglass's Review:
This is a great little book, only 134 pages if you count the Appendices, fits nicely into your handbag and which I managed to read over the three hours that I spent at the hairdresser’s. (No smart comments from the men-folk thank you).

It is easy to read and follows the life of Milton Humason who started as a janitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory and became one of America’s leading astronomers working with Hubble on the Hubble Law.

Even for a “newbie” like me it was interesting reading, even though it did use northern hemisphere examples. It was written more like a novel than a text, giving the history of Mt Wilson Observatory and Edwin Hubble, the origins of astrophotography, and even making the Hubble Constant understandable.

If you have a few hours to spare and want to have a great read I strongly recommend “How Far Is Up”.

If you now cannot wait to get your hands on this book please contact me as I would also be interested in someone else’s review of the book.

Also for any member who is interested in doing a book review, I still have a couple of publications that need to find a reviewer.


“HOW FAR IS UP? - THE MEN WHO MEASURED THE UNIVERSE”

Author: Mary & John Gribbin
Pages: 134
Reviewed by: 1: Nadia Douglass
2: Nigel Eke

Nigel Eke's Review:
This book is jointly written by John Gribbin, a Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex, and Mary Gribbin, who has a special interest in the history of exploration and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

Together they present a history lesson in the measurement of astronomical distances. The history lesson concentrates to some degree on the measurement methods but, to a larger degree, on the personalities of the individuals involved.

The lesson starts around the time George Ellery Hale was building the sixty-inch reflector telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory. It continues with Milton Humason's involvement in the building of the 100-inch and his career progression through mule-train driver, janitor and assistant astronomer.

A large focus of the book is on Edwin Hubble, his and others’ measurements of the Hubble constant (which, during their time, Hubble and Humason simply referred to as K).

It talks about Hale's plans to build a 300-inch reflector on Mt Palomar. This was later scaled down to the now-famous 200-inch reflector.

Alan Sandage became a natural successor to continue Hubble's work after Hubble died from a heart attack in September 1953. He used the 200- inch to further refine the calculation of the Hubble constant. The book states that Alan Sandage took on this work as a matter of responsibility, rather than his own wish to study stellar evolution.

Finally the book looks at work performed with the Hubble space telescope itself, where the Hubble constant has now been determined to within an accuracy of about 10%.

The book has a lot less gutsy technical detail than I was expecting and a lot more historical references and reflections on individuals’ characters. The hundred or so pages make easy reading and I enjoyed reading it, even though from a personal point of view I would generally go for something with more hard science rather than the history bias. As a result I would not buy the book for my own collection but I do think it is a good buy for the ASNSW library and one that will be enjoyed by many members, even if you already have a good understanding of how astronomical distances are measured.

This is a book that can be enjoyed by both experienced and not so experienced astronomers. For those that have never cast their mind on how distances get measured at such astronomical scales, this book will provide an easy introduction. If it whets your appetite for this subject then you will no doubt be seeking out other material. If you would simply like a history lesson in the building of some of the world’s first large telescopes then this book is also a worthwhile read.