Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Tales from a travelling astronomer
By Fred Watson
Allen & Unwin
February 2013, ISBN: 9781742373768, $24,99, Paperback, 348 pages
If there is such a thing as a celebrity astronomer, Fred Watson is it. He’s created a powerful link between the general public’s desire to know more about the universe we live in and the complex and often esoteric world of the professional. Part of the reason for this is Watson’s warmth which lends accessibility and humour to his topics. The popularity is also due to the obvious delight he takes in his subject matter and the clarity of his prose, as he covers topics as complex as the development and operation of the telescope, the controversy surrounding the demotion of Pluto to a “plutoid”, the history of scientific and astronomical good and bad behavior, astronomy and sustainability, and the workings of the universe at both a micro (quantum) and macro (astronomical) level. Watson is always interesting, and always the perfect combination of light-hearted, easy-to understand, and thoughtful.
Working the line between intellectual stimulation and pleasurable entertainment takes a certain skill, which is evident in Watson’s new book Star Craving Mad. Watson takes us with him on a series of tours – some literal and some metaphorical. As astronomical tour guide, we join the travelling croud of enthusiasts through a Stargazer II tour of Europe where we meet a man from Pluto in Berlin, drink a toast to the dwarf planet at the site of the IAU’s’ General Assembly in Prague where it was demoted, walk up the steps of Chankillo, a 2300 year old solar observatory, visit the CERN laboratory in Switzerland in search of the Higgs Boson, tour Australia’s Warrumbungles, home of the Siding Springs observatory where Watson works (when he isn’t touring the world), or into Lyngenfjord, Norway to watch the most spectacular aurora:
Swirling curtains of light, twisted into impossible shapes, would sweep in waves across the sky, taking only seconds to form, brighten into prominence and then fade again Still more green bands would roam from east to west. And this silent display would be interrupted by our shouts of excitement, as we looked on in awe. (307)
Throughout the book Watson weaves information with personal anecdotes. For example, Watson writes about the impact that PG Tips astronomy cards had on him when he was a boy, relates his son’s arachnophobia to and the impact on the spider to Einstein’s publication of the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, talks about his appearance on the Channel 4 television show Reality on the Rocks, and his own involvement in an evangelical church. Though all of the book is fascinating, uniting as it does, a travelogue with a history of science (and broader history as it moves through World War I and II – at one point even taking us into a fighter cockpit), scientific analysis, and a kind of New Scientist styled look at astronomy and astrobiology, the chapter titled “The Ultimate Journey” is one of the most beautifully written and poignant. Watson asks the surprisingly vital (but rarely tackled) question of whether science can offer anything to the bereaved, and actually hints that there may well be something comforting (and terrifying in equal measures) in notions around multiverses and ‘theories of everything’ that can comfort us in the face of impending and inevitable death:
None of us doubts that all of space exists so why shouldn’t all of time exist, too, since the two are so intimately linked? If this were the case, and our moment-by-moment view of time is just some weird cross-section of a much deeper reality, it would be a truly remarkable thing. (300)
This almost Buddhistic look at the potential impact of String Theory and the multiverses that Stephen Hawkings claims to have proven in The Grand Design is followed by one of the most evocative and yet simple descriptions of quantum entanglement that I’ve read (and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I’ve read a lot on the topic). Though Star-Craving Mad is a wide-ranging, ambitious book full of detailed descriptions and scientific insight, at its heart is a deep-seated humanism, and sense of wonder and joy at the universe we find ourselves in (and the others that might also exist). The book is a pleasure to read (and a must for anyone who wants to vicariously experience one of Watson’s amazing sounding Astronomy Tours), but it’s also, in very subtle and non-didactic ways, profound, reminding us of how wonderful (and terrible at times) the human race is, how far we’ve come in our understanding of who we are, and how much is yet to discover. Find out more about Fred Watson, his tours and books at www.fredwatson.com.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and a number of poetry books under the Celebration Series banner including the latest, Sublime Planet. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.