Suppose you and I still wondered whether all of the pinpoints of light in the night sky are the same distance from us. Suppose none of our contemporaries could tell us whether the Sun orbits the Earth, or vice versa, or even how large the Earth is. Suppose no one had guessed there are mathematical laws underlying the motions of the heavens.
How would - how did - anyone begin to discover these numbers and these relationships without leaving the Earth? What made anyone even think it was possible to find out “how far,” without going there?
In Measuring the Universe we join our ancestors and contemporary scientists as they tease this information out of a sky full of stars. Some of the questions have turned out to be loaded, and a great deal besides mathematics and astronomy has gone into answering them. Politics, religion, philosophy and personal ambition: all have played roles in this drama.
There are poignant personal stories, of people like Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Herschel, and Hubble. Today scientists are attempting to determine the distance to objects near the borders of the observable universe, far beyond anything that can be seen with the naked eye in the night sky, and to measure time back to its origin. The numbers are too enormous to comprehend.
Nevertheless, generations of curious people have figured them out, one resourceful step at a time. Progress has owed as much to raw ingenuity as to technology, and frontier inventiveness is still not out of date.
It is one of the great stories of science, and Ferguson tells it well.
Ferguson offers lucid accounts of the reasoning behind important leaps of insight, but it’s the little details that delight.
Ferguson manages to walk us through the most amazing research. She is as interested in the quirky intellectual temperaments of astronomy’s pioneers as in their discoveries.
Modern bookshelves are filled with stories of cosmic discovery. Occasionally, however, an author comes along who dares to describe how science works, who dares to find its underbelly and remind us that the romance and pleasure of cosmic discoveries lies not necessarily in experimental results but in the journey of measurements that led to them. Such an author is Kitty Ferguson, a musician turned science writer, who is distinguished as one who can explain complex things – from the life and times of cosmic objects like black holes to the life and times of cosmic physicists such as Stephen Hawking.
Music, more than any of the other arts, is expressed in numbers – measurements of differences in pitch and time. I’m no scientist, but I know what I like, and I found Measuring the Universe exciting, entertaining, and even enthralling.
Stephen Hawking’s name is well known throughout the world but considerably fewer people are aware of the true scale of the impact he had on science and how that has influenced our wider world. Kitty Ferguson reflects on the time they spent together and the impact that his legacy still has today.