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A glimpse of the early Universe

Naturevolume 441pages10501051 (2006) | Download Citation


Chasing Hubble's Shadows: The Search for Galaxies at the Edge of Time

Hill & Wang: 2006. 224 pp. $24 0809034069 | ISBN: 0-809-03406-9

Can beauty save the world? Anyone who reads Chasing Hubble's Shadows by Jeff Kanipe may be able to find an answer in the book's images of a tiny part of the sky, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. They reveal thousands of galaxies, the “Hubble's shadows” of the title, at different stages of their evolution. The images portray breathtaking beauty surrounded by silence.

The Hubble Space Telescope has identified infant stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. NOTA

The book is about the beauty of the heavens as revealed by Hubble, the questions such images raise, and the explanations astronomers have proposed, along with their doubts and hopes. How did astronomers become interested in galaxies? How can galaxies be classified? How are the most remote of them detected? How can their formation and evolution be explained? The book is much more than a description of the farthest images ever taken. It is also a vivid description of how astronomers work and how ideas develop. It is a virtual trip into the complex realm of dark matter and dark energy, but also a real trip through the Moon-like landscape of the Mauna Kea summit in Hawaii where the world's biggest telescopes are located. This is an exciting time, with astronomers facing challenges similar to those that confronted Galileo when he discovered the satellites of Jupiter. Astronomers are trying to understand the physical processes at play in the early Universe.

Kanipe has written a narrative rather than an analysis. He reports discussions with dozens of astronomers and their explanations of a variety of subjects relevant to the early Universe and to the formation and evolution of galaxies. The writing is uneven and a few topics are discussed several times, but isn't the art of saying things several times without bothering the reader part of pedagogy? The resulting mixture of journalistic and scientific styles certainly keeps the reader excited.

The book will not help readers understand physics from first principles, or discover a theory that can make sense of the little information we have on our Universe. Rather, it provides an opportunity to meet people and ideas. This is an entertaining way to approach the relation between the big scientific questions and the emotions that overcome astronomers during their research. We hear of their nightmares, their doubts, their patience, their scepticism and the risks they take.

It is difficult to define the target audience for this book. There are sometimes too many inappropriate technical details for a general reader and, probably driven by his enthusiasm, the author also goes too fast or too far. For example, it may be unrealistic to assume that general readers know what a graviton is, or why it may be interesting to follow up on radio galaxies, and specialists will learn little too. Nonetheless, if general readers are happy to leave a few technical details unexplained, they will be able to enjoy this entertaining approach to the mysteries of our Universe. Anyone curious about the mechanisms of our world will be thrilled by the book.

Few would disagree with the remarks here concerning the lack of funding, although these are hardly unique to astronomy. Kanipe also questions the political choices being made, such as the US plan to visit the Moon and Mars. It would have been more appropriate to question the place of science and basic research in our society. This has to be carefully argued to convince a broad audience, but I am afraid he is preaching to the converted.

The main aim of the book is to describe what astronomers have learned so far about the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe, but it does much more than this. Given the huge strides being made in exploring the Universe, physicists are having to find new and different ways of explaining what they see. This creates the feeling that we have reached the end of the beginning and are looking ahead.

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  1. Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, 98 bis Boulevard Arago, Paris, 75014, France

    • Patrick Petitjean


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