The Astronomer’s Universe

As the boundaries of human knowledge extend further into the mystifying complexities of the universe, a continuing challenge for the literate scientist is to convey both the accomplishments and remaining known problems of his field so that an interested layperson may understand and appreciate the importance of his work. Herbert Friedman reaches backward to Galileo to describe and explain the beginnings of astronomical discovery and beyond the range of the most powerful modern instruments to speculate about what the future may hold. His historical summary provides a solid foundation for an understanding of the shape and form of the universe, and his explanation of the cosmological theories of creation permits an entrance into the abstract, philosophical, and even poetic nature of the most advanced astrophysics.

Writing with clarity and evident authority, Friedman is able to make basic astronomical methods comprehensible, and he uses charts and numbers in the gradually increasing increments of a careful teacher to build on previous insight. Such basic concepts as stellar evolution, black holes, quasars, pulsars, quarks, supernovae, and the like are rendered in language that the nonscientist can grasp, and the introduction of material on the lives and aspirations of famous astronomers adds a human dimension that illustrates the allure of the awesome reaches of the infinite and the eternal. Photographs, abundant quotations, a glossary, and diagrams help to illustrate the material.

THE ASTRONOMER’S UNIVERSE is an excellent basic text, accurate and informative, and although Friedman’s writing lacks the poetic power of Freeman Dyson or Lewis Thomas, it is usually clear and rarely wrapped in forbidding jargon. Friedman’s attempts to consider the philosophic implications of the most recent discoveries lack the depth of Stephen Jay Gould’s work, but the reader is never in doubt about the importance of the issues at stake. The irony of the mechanical failure of the Hubble telescope is anticipated by Friedman’s awareness of previous problems with advanced experimental instruments, and his observation that “surprise is normal” captures the excitement of exploration in the latter part of the twentieth century.