If you have never heard of the Herschels, then you are missing out on the most important astronomers of the 18 th and 19 th Century. William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, together with his able and dedicated sister Caroline and his erudite son John revealed the Milky Way and its diverse contents as never before. Through careful visual observations with their giant telescopes, this dynastic dynamo bore witness to a multitude of dancing double stars, incandescent nebulae, and the Milky Way itself. Today, we inherit from them the picture of a disk-like galaxy which contains our Solar System and countless other stellar systems. This book review by Endicott College student Todd Stelling provides a fine introduction to Michael Lemonick’s lively portrait of the Herschels and their cosmic discoveries.
For several years, Prof. Alaa Ibrahim (Observatory Director at the Zewail City of Science and Technology) has been taking his students out of the teeming metropolis of Giza and into the deep desert. Their destination, Wadi Al-Hitan National Park, is best known for its amazing fossils of ancient whales that roamed this area some 40 million years ago, when much of Egypt was completely under water. The remoteness of this site also endows the place with night skies that are essentially free of light pollution. For many of Prof. Ibrahim’s students, this venture into the desert was their first opportunity to view planets, constellations, and the Milky Way in a pristine dark sky. With the aid of large portable telescopes that were deployed on-site, they also got to view star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. These combined experiences were in many ways transformative to the students. I hope that you will find their personal reflections (below) as heartwarming and inspiring as I do. – William H. Waller
Humankind has pondered the idea of life existing beyond our solar system for many generations. Recent discoveries of “earthlike” planets have re-energized these speculations. But what makes Earth perfect for life, and what does that mean for extraterrestrial life? Lucky Planet by David Waltham addresses these questions.
Water has been identified in the most uncanny of places – as vapors in the nebulae that roam our Milky Way Galaxy, as ices in the protoplanetary disks that surround many protostars, and as liquids below the icy crusts of the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft imaged geysers of liquid water erupting from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The liquid form of water is especially important to biotic processes, as it provides an essential solvent for making the sundry hookups and energy transfers that are necessary to life.
Amateur telescopes can reveal thousands of other galaxies in those sections of the sky that are sufficiently far from the Milky Way’s congested disk. The digital images of elliptical, spiral, irregular, and interacting galaxies that these “citizen scientists” can now obtain surpass the best images obtained professionally just 25 years ago.