Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris

(Two posts in less than a week. I know. Don't get too excited.)

I recently finished reading Timothy Ferris's Coming of Age in the Milky Way. I admit: it was on a recommendation list somewhere and I was intrigued by the title, so when I saw it at a local used bookstore, I snagged it. I have not been disappointed.

Summary: Coming of Age in the Milky Way tells the story of how humankind came to know its place in the universe. Though the book has three distinct themes (Space, Time, and Creation), the main focus is on Space: how did we learn the size of the Earth, the extent of and laws governing the Solar System, that the Milky Way is a "galaxy" and only one of many, and that the universe is giant and expanding? The other two sections expand on this history of revelations. The Time section discusses how we discovered that the Earth (as well as humans as a species and the universe as a whole) are not unchanging, static and infinite, and the Creation section focuses more on the marriage of quantum physics and cosmology: how did the elements and subatomic particles and, indeed, the universe itself come to be?

Review: As an astronomer, none of the actual science here was new to me, but I can say that, unlike many popular treatments of physics, very little of the descriptions made my inner "but that's not really true ..." voice cringe. (There were maybe two pages like this, and one of them may have actually involved something that was believed to be true in the late 1980s.)

Primarily, though, this is a history book, and I found the history fascinating. Ferris paints a detailed and colorful portait of the personalities and worldly changes (politics, well-timed supernovae, etc.) that led to these revelations (and occasional setbacks). The writing is lyrical, poetic even, and yet detailed and straightforward when need be. The book is stock full of quotes, none of which feel out of place or difficult to read (as thousand-year-old quotations are apt to be). The transition of this writing style into the modern age—when quotes were garnered via interviews instead of meticulous combing of however-the-hell people figure these things out—was seemless. Though published in 1988, Coming of Age in the Milky Way is surprisingly not out-of-date 20 years later; as the views of the 1980s are not treated as The Answer, a 21st century reader will only notice that the story seems to stop a little earlier than expected.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of science, the process of science, or general astronomy or physics.