FIRST LIGHT: THE SEARCH FOR THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE is a revised edition of the prize-winning book of the same title first released in 1987. Though author Richard Preston conducted the interviews for the first edition several years earlier, the book is as fresh as ever, since at its core it is less a catalog of astronomical discoveries than an insightful and entertaining description of how scientists work.
The book revolves around three principle characters. There is James Gunn, the only astronomer to have completely distinguished himself as a theorist, a hands-on astronomer, and a builder of scientific instruments. In FIRST LIGHT, he designs and builds a highly sensitive liquid nitrogen-cooled camera for the Hale Telescope, many of the parts for which were rescued from dumpsters and bought at a local hobby shop. Maarten Schmidt, discoverer of the true nature of quasars, teams up with Gunn and his camera to seek out quasars at the edge of the visible universe. Then there is the Hale Telescope itself, the heaviest working telescope in the world. Much of FIRST LIGHT retells the peculiar history of this remarkable instrument, from its fanciful conception to its enthronement at the top of Palomar Mountain. Preston is especially effective at portraying the endless, freezing nights beneath the Hale as the astronomers track threads of sky as wide as a poppy seed held at arms’s length.
FIRST LIGHT also brings in chapters on the search for asteroids with Earth crossing orbits, as well as an abundance of “gee-whiz” scientific facts. Most of all, FIRST LIGHT distinguishes itself as a portrait of “real” science (as opposed to mega-subsidized Big Science).