Sunday, September 18, 2005
The Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain achieves a well-deserved legendary status through the course of this book, which is divided into sections that concern active research at the complex, the history of the telescope, and an exploration of the so-called gadgeteers (engineers trapped in the bodies of scientists).
Richard Preston, the author, is probably better-known for his book The Hot Zone, which I read several years ago and view tepidly. Virus Hunters of the CDC is a far superior book concerning Ebola, Lassa Fever, etc.
However, First Light has a realistically reverential tone and explains some of the technology used in astronomy so well, that you actually do get a feel for what astronomers do.
The descriptions of their personalities, discussions, debates, disasters, and discoveries is very very good.
This book is so readable that I actually finished the paper version. This is notable because the majority of my current reading is audiobooks.
Each person profiled in the book was obviously interviewed multiple times, and great care was taken with getting their thoughts and background done right.
The sheer size of the telescope is difficult to communicate. The building is a vast towering dome of snowy white, sitting on the spine of Palomar Mountain. The foyer and the stairwells up to the visitor's gallery are art deco in style, and your footsteps echo several times. Voices are lengthened and made resonant. It's often cold, and the few exhibits in the small gallery are a hodgepodge of old and new. A computer with "this week's observing activities" sits beside a drawing of telescope that dates back a couple of decades at least.
If you remember those collage-type-posters, where stuff was pasted onto the paper, before printing became really cheap, then you get the idea of some of the presentations.
Looking through the glass wall towards the telescope, it's hard to see anything that looks like an optical tube. The massive U-shaped bearing supports something that looks like an oil rig.
The book describes the assembly of the bearing (largest ever made) and the massive pyrex glass plate that the mirror is made out of. The descriptions of it "coming to life" in this book are hands-down hair-raising. Wonderful stuff!
The mystery of how many motors runs the thing, the strange series of "rituals" that astronomers and caretakers have indulged in because "it seems to work" and the unexplainable oddities that happen late at night in the enormous machine are true gems of geekiness.