First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe Critical Essays

Richard Preston

First Light (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

FIRST LIGHT is divided into four parts: “Big Eye,” “The Shoemaker Comets,” “Gadgeteers,” and “Discoveries.” “Big Eye” tells the story of the conception, design, and maintenance of the Hale Telescope, the largest working telescope in the world. George Ellery Hale was an eccentric who talked to an elf in his room, but he was also a genius at raising money for his projects. The pyrex disk was cast in Corning, New York, in 1934, and transported to Pasadena on a heavily guarded flatcar in 1936. After years of polishing and preparation, the Hale telescope went into regular use in 1949. “The Shoemaker Comets” describes the success of Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker at searching out asteroids and comets with the eighteen-inch Schmidt Telescope at Mount Palomar, while also sketching the life of the brilliant, alcoholic optician, Bernhard Schmidt, for whom the telescope is named.

The foremost of the “Gadgeteers” in part 3 is probably Jim Gunn, an astronomer and gifted tinkerer at Princeton University who made the Hale Telescope’s main camera, “four-shooter,” which can take four pictures of the sky simultaneously. One of Gunn’s collaborators, Don Schneider of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, devised an image-processing program and claimed to be in love with Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Jim Westphal led the team that built the camera for the $1.4 billion Hubble Space Telescope; and James Janesick invented the signal processor for Westphal’s camera. The major hero of “Discoveries” is Maarten Schmidt, the Dutch-born explorer of quasars with the Hale Telescope.

Schmidt’s important work is made possible partly by the help of Juan Carrasco, the assistant who works the controls of the huge telescope. FIRST LIGHT makes clear that the people at Mount Palomar are not only exceptionally talented scientists but also extremely interesting human beings.