Books on Science
In the universe there is always room for another surprise. Or two. Or a trillion.
Take the Witch Head Nebula, for example – a puffy purplish trail of gas in the constellation Eridanus. When a picture of it is turned on its side, the nebula looks just like, well, a witch, complete with a pointy chin and peaked hat, ready to jump on a broomstick or offer an apple to Snow White.
In 30 years of covering astronomy, I had never heard of the Witch Head Nebula until I came across a haunting two-page spread showing it snaking across an inky black star-speckled background in “Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle,” an exquisite picture guide to the universe by Michael Benson, a photographer, journalist and filmmaker, and obviously a longtime space buff.
Actually “exquisite” does not really do justice to the aesthetic and literary merits of the book, published in the fall. I live in New York, so most of the cosmos is invisible to me, but even when I lived under the black crystalline and – at this time of year – head-ringingly cold skies of the Catskills, I could see only so far. If you don’t have your own Hubble Space Telescope, this book is the next best thing.
Mr. Benson has scoured images from the world’s observatories, including the Hubble, to fashion a step-by-step tour of the cosmos, outward from fantastical clusters and nebulae a few hundred light-years away to soft red dots of primordial galaxies peppering the wall of the sky billions of light-years beyond the stars, almost to the Big Bang.
The result is an art book befitting its Abrams imprint. Here are stars packed like golden sand, gas combed in delicate blue threads, piled into burgundy thunderheads and carved into sinuous rilles and ribbons, and galaxies clotted with star clusters dancing like spiders on the ceiling.
Mr. Benson has reprocessed many of the images to give them colors truer to physical reality. For example, in the NASA version of the Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation,” showing fingers of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula boiling away to reveal new stars, the “pillars” are brown and the radiation burning them away is green; Mr. Benson has turned it into a composition in shades of red, including burgundy, the actual color of the ionized hydrogen that makes the nebula.
You can sit and look through this book for hours and never be bored by the shapes, colors and textures into which cosmic creation can arrange itself, or you can actually read the accompanying learned essays. Mr. Benson’s prose is up to its visual surroundings, no mean feat.
“The enlarging mirrors of our telescopes,” he writes, “comprise material forged at the centers of the same generation of stars they now record.”
One set of essays relates what was going on in the sky to what was going on back on Earth. The Witch Head, for example, is about 700 light-years from here, which means its soft smoky light has been traveling to us since the early part of the 14th century. It is a milestone for, among other things, the bubonic plague, the first stirrings of the Renaissance in Italy and the foundation of the Ming dynasty in China.
The Heart Nebula, another new acquaintance, in Cassiopeia right next to the Soul Nebula, is 7,500 light-years away. Its image dates to the time of the first proto-writing in China and the first wine, in Persia, and when the Mediterranean burst its banks in biblical fashion and flooded the Black Sea.
The journey outward ends in those distant blurry galaxies on the doorstep of the Big Bang. Or is it the beginning?
“Eternity,” Mr. Benson quotes William Blake as saying in an epigraph, “is in love with the productions of time.” Well, aren’t we all?