Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

“There is music in the spacing of the spheres.” Pythagoras

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dreams of other worldsLast week, NASA announced that Voyager 1, launched 36 years ago, has finally left our solar system and entered interstellar space. A mind-blowing achievement which will allow scientists to confirm some of their theories and expectations of what we will find beyond the reach of our Sun. But Voyager, impressive though it is, is only one of the amazing journeys we are making into space, some with great fanfares and trumpets, like the Mars Rovers expeditions, some less well known but no less important and inspiring for the information they send back. In this book, the authors tell us about eleven of these missions, what scientists have learned from them and how they have impacted on the popular imagination and culture.

The main thrust of the book is on the search for conditions suitable for life either on planets within our solar system or on the exoplanets that are now being identified exponentially. The early chapters cover the missions to planets and objects within our own solar system and the later part of the book is given over to the various observational missions looking beyond our little bit of the universe and back through space-time to the earliest observable point after the big bang. The enthusiasm of the authors is infectious and the book is written in such a way that it is easily accessible to the non-scientists among us. It is liberally illustrated with diagrams to help explain some of the concepts as well as pictures from Hubble and other observatories.

Voyager 1
Voyager 1

The authors start with a look at the Mars missions – the Viking and MER Rovers. They explain the technical marvels that got us there and contrast that with the extremely limited computing and camera facilities that were available, particularly on the Viking Rovers. While sadly the rovers have not found any little green men, they have found clear indications of water in the past and perhaps even still. We get to find out a little about the team behind the mission and how the information sent back changed how scientists thought about the conditions necessary to support life. The style is almost conversational and the authors very enjoyably anthropomorphise the robotic rovers, making this reader at least feel sorry for their little ‘broken arm’ and ‘limp’ – indeed, when one of the rovers finally ‘died’ (very bravely, I might add) I had to suppress a little tear!

The Voyager mission itself takes us first to Uranus and Jupiter before heading out beyond the edge of the solar system, while Cassini and Huygens study Saturn and its moons. As the journeys unfold, we are told how the power required to travel these distances is achieved through ‘gravity assist’ – using the gravity of the planets themselves as a kind of slingshot. The authors discuss how the real science of these missions inspired programmes like Star Trek and were in turn influenced by them. In fact, NASA used Nichelle Nicholls (Uhura) as a figurehead to inspire more women and minorities to enter the field.

Lt. Uhura (www.startrek.com)
Lt. Uhura
(www.startrek.com)

The Stardust mission successfully captured dust from the tail of the Wild 2 comet. In this fascinating chapter, the authors explain how comets are seen as the bringers of life and also the harbingers of destruction. They explain in relatively simple terms that we are indeed stardust, as the song says. They remind us of the thrilling pictures of Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter and how those images encouraged the US government to authorise NASA to monitor possible comet threats to Earth. As well as particles from Wild 2, Stardust also captured particles from the surrounding space, and the authors explain how ‘open science’ projects have been used to involve the public in locating these tiny, sparse particles in the aerogel that trapped them. And we are told that we have the technology to ‘capture’ comets into Earth orbit should we choose and use them for mining precious metals or also as a means to provide a lift off point and all the fuel required for future space missions. Apparently although international law prevents states from claiming ownership of comets or asteroids, a loophole means that the same does not apply to individuals…

‘A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.’

Artist's impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust
(NASA)

The later chapters cover the observational missions – SOHO, Hipparcos, Spitzer, Chandra, Hubble and WMAP. These missions have expanded our knowledge of the universe and shed light on its origins, confirming some of the theories that had been posited while forcing re-evaluation of others. At the same time, they are daily discovering exoplanets that may be able to support life. The authors take us back through the history of cosmology from its earliest days and bring us up to date on the current theories, clearly differentiating between what is known and what has not yet been proved. We hear of the amazing technology behind these missions, the people who in some cases have spent an entire career on them, and what they have taught us. The near-disasters are covered too – the early days of the Hubble mission dogged by technical problems which led to some of the most inspiring spacewalks to date. This whole section is much more science-heavy and I struggled a few times to really grasp the concepts, but not often – on the whole, the authors were able to simplify to a level that allowed me to follow along.

Spiral Nebula NGC 5194 (Hubble)
Spiral Nebula NGC 5194
(Hubble)

A very accessible and hugely inspiring book – inspirational not just about the sheer glory of the universe, but about the amazing people who are allowing us to learn about it through them. The concluding chapter looks ahead to the exciting future missions that are on the horizon, as well as some that have already begun – the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars, better studies of Jupiter’s moons, observational missions to discover ‘first light’ and investigate the theory of ‘inflation’ following the big bang; and of course the continuing search for extraterrestrial life. Stirring stuff! If you have even the smallest shred of geekiness in your soul, I heartily recommend this to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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24 thoughts on “Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

  1. I love the idea of an accessible look at something as amazing as our explorations beyond our own planet. confess I didn’t have very good science teachers as a young person, so whatever interest/ability I had in the subject wasn’t exactly – erm – nurtured. That’s why I’m always keen to check out well-written, ‘for the rest of us’ books on the topic. Thanks.

    • I’m exactly the same – turned off science at a very early age by uninspiring teaching. It’s only in the last few years that my inner geek has flourished, and fortunately for me there’re a lot of science writers now who can make the subject accessible to people without a science background.

  2. Very interesting. A pity that it’s five smileys. I find it interesting to consider just what the big bang sounded like. After all, it had to be observed by someone–something. Unless, of course, in space no one can hear you scream.

    Dadblameit, never mind!

    Anyway, the professor maintains that eventually we will find exactly what Burroughs wrote about in his book ‘A Princess of Mars.’ And that is a scary thought. But an adventure awaits.

    • Why a pity, C-W-W? Does the universe not fill you with wonder? Yes, though, I have difficulty with the concept of nothingness before the big bang – but as the best scientists would say, what they don’t know is far greater than what they do…

      An adventure indeed! I want to join the Starfleet Academy and boldly go where no woman has gone before…

      • Because I like bad reviews better. Sorry for being wicked, but it’s the professorish way.

        I think I agree with them. Too bad they think they know anything. You know, the PL might have been around way back then…

        Are you sure? You know what happened to Major Tom…

        • Ah, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree about science, dear C-W-W! Scientists have made amazing discoveries that inspire me with awe and many of their theories have been proved correct. But I’ve never held that science answers every question…tune in later in the week for my review of Einstein’s take on the subject…or avoid it, if you’d prefer! 😉 (Warning: it will also get 5 smileys…)

          Goodness! How old does that make Schwarzy then? Perhaps he’s more BigSister’s age?

          Oh yes! My ambition is to get lost in the Delta Quadrant…

          • The professor has been told that science can’t prove anything. But it was probably a dadblamed person who told it.

            I can’t wait for the Einstein review! You know that I love your reviews. Couldn’t keep away even if I wanted to. 😉

            😆 Well, time might function differently in the PL… The professor is older than BigSister, FEF.

            Maybe you already are?

            • But I want them to be right so that we can meet up with aliens someday – much more fun that humans! 😉

              Thank you, kind Prof! I promise it won’t be as long as this one!

              Older than BigSister? Is that even possible?? I hope you’re still young enough to dance, though…

              😆 Some days I feel as if that might be the case…

            • You know what happened in Independence Day. I hope you wouldn’t be standing atop that building. The professor wouldn’t.

              I like long reviews. 🙂

              No. Too wobbly at the knees. And the professor will never dance, you know. Yes, I am, I fear…

            • Certainly would not! I would simply offer the aliens some of Ruber’s fish as a welcome gift – problem solved!

              Well, I’m terribly sorry to hear about your wobbliness, though thankful it’s your knees and not your tummy, like that creature. But regardless, you promised to dance with me, and that’s that! A gentleman (like Darby) never goes back on his word…

  3. Sounds good – I have been an avid follower of the of Mars exploration since the first rovers landed, so this sounds right up my street. I agree about the bad science teaching – in my day, they were trying to produce mini -scientists, instead of people who understood and appreciated science: inevitable, I suppose, when no-one with any scientific competence would have been teaching at school level.

  4. This sounds like an excellent book and one that I will certainly be adding to my wishlist over on Amazon. Although I went on to become a scientist it had nothing to do with my schooling. My biology teacher was a sadist (this is back when the belt was used as a punishment), my chemistry teacher was a bore and others seemed to be passing time. One in particular preferred to tell stories about his time during WW2 than teach science.
    Regarding Star Trek, the first film Star Trek the Motion Picture, was all about Voyager. I won’t get all geeky now and go into an in depth discussion about the film but the film did have an interesting premise regarding Voyager.
    Unfortunately, I can remember when Voyager was launched which makes me feel rather old. I believe I read that it will be able to transmit for at least another ten years so it will be very interesting to see what information it sends back.

    • I think science was pretty badly taught all round ‘back in the day’. I would never have become a scientist – my mind just doesn’t work that way – but I’d have loved to learn more about physics especially. I’m catching up a bit now through reading, but it was something I ignored as ‘boring’ for years, thanks to school.

      Yay! Another Star Trek fan! Feel free to be as geeky as you like about it here… 😉

      Yes, it’s incredible to think that we can still get information back from Voyager from outside the solar system – amazing!

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