Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos

by Dennis Overbye
hardcover and paperback - 300 pages
Currently out of print -- look for it in libraries, used bookstores, or on http://www.Amazon.com or http://dogbert.abebooks.com/

Normally, I review only books that are in print. This month I would like to draw your attention to a wonderfully entertaining book that is, alas, currently out of print, but readily available in libraries, used bookstores, or online. It is well worth your attention.

All astronomers are individuals, but some are more individual than others. Cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, its size, age, birth, history, and "death," tends to draw unusual and colorful personalities. It has been said that, "Cosmologists are often in error, but never in doubt." Perhaps it's that cosmology almost always deals with "frontier" questions at the limit of our observational ability, where we find speculations more common than data. It's also that cosmology deals with the "Big Questions" in that indistinct and fog-bound region between astronomy, philosophy, and theology. Astronomers who invest their lives in exploring that wild and woolly frontier tend to grow, like the mountain men and frontier women of old, larger than life and may even become giants out of legend.

Dennis Overbye, formerly of Sky and Telescope and currently a science writer for the New York Times, has visited these pioneers of the Big Bang and brought back tales of their antic adventures, their lonely courage and petty quarrels, their brilliant insights and glaring errors. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos (a peculiar yet not inappropriate title) is Overbye's memoir of his time spent with these cosmic explorers, either in the wilds of academia or at their annual trappers' rendezvous (scientific conferences).

In Lonely Hearts, you will meet some of the most memorable characters of recent physics and astronomy. Allan Sandage, cosmology's Old Man of the Mountain, the personal research assistant of Edwin Hubble in his later years and successor in Hubble's quest for the age and scale of the expanding universe. Stephen Hawking, famed British theorist of black hole physics, holder of the position once occupied by Sir Isaac Newton, confined to his wheelchair, yet exploring the farthest reaches of spacetime. Alan Guth, who explained how the cosmos briefly expanded "faster than light" when it was smaller than a tangerine and why, therefore, we will never see more than the most infinitesimal fraction of our universe. Beatrice Tinsley and Marc Aaronson, whose brilliant early careers on the wild frontier were tragically cut short, in one case by cancer, in the other by a fluke observatory accident.

This is the one astronomy book I know of which it could truly be said, it reads like a novel. You'll get a decent survey of the issues in cosmology during the 1960's, 70's, and 80's (the value of the Hubble Constant, Inflation Theory, black holes and thermodynamics, Dark Matter, etc.) as background to understand the acerbic debates that motivate the many characters. But it's the cosmologists themselves, even more than their science, that keep us fascinated. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Watson and Crick's classic The Double Helix, itself not so much about DNA as about the varied personalities who tirelessly worked and schemed to be the first to unlock the structure of DNA. Overbye's book will remind you that astronomy is a very human pursuit carried out not in the "Ivory Tower," but in the turmoil of real life. Those engaged in that solitary pursuit of insight on the deep space frontier are truly Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos.