Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Cosmic Butterflies

Last week we had three or four cloudless days, but since Saturday things have been cloudy and rainy. For the last few days I’ve been taking out my star-gazing energies in re-reading some of my favorite astronomy books.

One of my favorite astronomy books is also one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time.

The book takes its title from the Butterfly Nebula. At first glance, this might seem like just a coffee table book of pretty pictures, the kind of thing you can flip through while watching TV. But if you just flip through this book, you’ll miss half the fun.

Unlike many modern science books which are written by generic science writers cranking out generic cheer-leading raves trying to “sell” science, this book is written by a professional astronomer, Sun Kwok, who has devoted his career to studying planetary nebulae. Professor Kwok and his associates have contributed directly to our understanding of how planetary nebulae form and his passion for the subject is clear on every page.

Professor Kwok reviews the history of planetary nebula studies—including early theories which have not stood the test of modern research—summarizes our current understanding of nebula formation as older stars blasting away debris and residue from their growing surfaces, and concludes with current mysteries, such as how complex structures seem to form within the expanding shells of debris.

Some of the highest technology the human race has ever created has been turned to sorting out the mysteries of planetary nebulae, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Very Large Array radio telescope which uses radio waves to create images ten times the resolution of ground-based visual light telescopes.

The astronomers and astrophysicists who use the amazing technology do the real work, taking data and turning it into information, taking information and turning it into knowledge.

This book is a showcase of everything connected with the heavens. The phenomenal beauty hidden in the sky and waiting to be uncovered and deciphered, the cutting edge technology taking in data from across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and the brilliant, creative and passionate astronomers and astrophysicists from around the globe making sense of things.

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