Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"A Grand and Bold Thing", by Ann Finkbeiner

As all three of my regular readers will know, I developed an interest in astronomy at the age of six (when the Solar System had only just been invented), and have been keeping a weather eye on the night sky ever since, even though I had no real idea of what was actually going on up there - until now.

One of my favourite blogs is The Last Word on Nothing, to which Ann regularly contributes.  A while ago, she despondently lamented that her book was "dopey" and no-one was reading it.  So, nice person that I am, I bought a copy off Amazon.  It arrived next day, flapping its covers impatiently at me.  That evening I popped out for a quick peek at good old Orion, then switched off the rubbish football and settled down for a read.

This is the story of the Sloan Project, which was conceived back in the eighties by an inspired astronomer called Jim Gunn.  His idea was that, given the rate of expansion of technological capability - almost faster than that of the universe itself - it should soon be possible, using telescopes and cameras and computers and all sorts of other whizz-kit, not to mention human beings and their brains and muscles, to make an observation-based map of that universe.  And even if it turned out not to be possible, that wasn't going to stop him.  So he just went ahead and did it. 

That's a bit of an oversimplification of the plot of this enthralling book.  The story is convoluted to say the least.  From Jim's simple concept, the route to the eventual staggering outcome takes in a huge cast of characters, initiatives and setbacks, the constantly shifting background of the science of cosmology itself; not to mention the esoteric spheres of project management and financial control (without which, of course, the universe wouldn't actually exist).  In less than 200 pages, the book leads you gently through all this, even the science - although the bit of my brain reserved for storing and expanding acronyms did start to smoulder a few times.  But the inspirational final chapter made me feel, even just for a moment, that I actually understood what all that stuff out there might really be, how it got there, and why some driven people will do almost anything to nail it down.

Oh, I forgot to  mention, it's also really funny.

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