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All posts for the month July, 2003

This past month I’ve been doing markups on the layouts for Visions of the Cosmos — the book that Jack Brandt and I have written together, due out this fall from Cambridge University Press. It has been a time-consuming process — crosschecking each page with the manuscript and images we sent to the press last spring. I call it the “fine-tooth comb” process and now that it’s done, I’m glad it’s over. But, while I’m doing it, it seems to last an eternity.
Now that it’s done, I can turn my attention back to the sky. Most avid amateurs out there are checking out the planet Mars when they get a chance. For those of you who have been under a rock or eating your way across the south of France or living under cloudy skies, here’s the scoop on the Red Planet’s doings.
First of all, Mars is about as close in its orbit as it ever gets to Earth. On August 27, 2003 it will be about 35 million miles (that’s about 56 million kilometers) away. So, that means if you’re checking it out through a telescope, it will appear about as big in the eyepiece as it ever gets. Still, it won’t be THAT big — but depending on the size of your scope (say a 6-inch or larger), you should be able to make out the polar cap and maybe some dark markings. That is, of course, if the view isn’t obscured by a dust storm at Mars or a cloud bottom here on Earth. Right now (the end of July, northern hemisphere) you can go out about midnight and look for the Red Planet low in the southeast in the constellation Aquarius.

Mars from the Global Surveyor Spacecraft

Mars from the Global Surveyor Spacecraft

What if you were on Mars, looking back at Earth? Well, right at opposition the view wouldn’t be too good — Earth would be pretty close to the Sun as seen from Mars. But, at other times of the year, if you were a Martian stargazer with a good backyard-type telescope, you’d see a bluish-white world with a good-sized moon in orbit around it.

This image was taken on May 8, 2003 by the Mars Global Surveyor that’s orbiting Mars and mapping its surface. Kinda gives us a whole new way of looking at our home planet — from the viewpoint of a Martian!

A little more than a year ago I started working on a book about astronomy — actually the sixth one I’ve worked on over the years. It’s due out later this year and I’ll say more about it as time gets closer for it to hit the shelves. Doing a book is a big project. The first book I ever did — about Jupiter — was a commission job for a series. They sent me all the artwork and what I wrote complemented and described a series of paintings by space artist Don Davis.

The next book was called Hubble Vision and it started out as my masters’ thesis in science journalism. But, it quickly grew to be more than a thesis and so I decided to turn it into a book. At the same time I was working with an astronomer named John C. Brandt — we were doing an atlas of Comet Halley images together — and he had been reading my manuscript for Hubble Vision and making some very cogent and useful comments on it. So, I asked him to be my co-author on the book and he accepted. It was published by Cambridge University Press and went through two editions. Between the two editions, I edited a book with Kelly Beatty and Andy Chaikin called The New Solar System, 4th Edition, a year later I did a conference proceedings about HST science with the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph instrument, and also edited two books for Sky Publishing Corporation when I worked there as an editor.

So, you’d think doing all this book work would get to be old hat, right?

Well, in a way it is and in another way it isn’t. Doing a book requires an incredible amount of mental effort. A writer carries around an amazing amount of stuff in mental inventory, constantly working and reworking it. Every book is new and each has its own challenges. In this latest one — which brought me together with J.C. Brandt again — we wanted to talk about all the great stuff that the world’s observatories are studying. That means showing lots of pretty pictures. And I do mean LOTS of them. There are so many gorgeous cosmic visions out there that picking and choosing which ones to include in the book was really difficult. But our publisher held us to about 180 images in a 225 page book, so we had to be selective.

On a parallel track with the great selection of images we wanted to bring some science to the reader in an approachable way. There’s a lot to write about in astronomy, and nearly all of it requires an explanation. So, one part of doing a really effective book is coming up with approachable, understandable explanations of stuff. It takes a long time. And the writer sorts through an incredible number of details in his/her mind. Keeping track of them almost requires some sort of bookkeeping system on the side so that if you talk about solar physics in chapter 2 for example, you have to make sure it dovetails with the discussion of stellar physics in chapter 4, and so on.

With two of us doing the work it doesn’t exactly halve the amount of effort each of us must put in. I’d say it probably stays at 100 percent for each of us, plus we each have to communicate ideas with the other. That wasn’t too difficult when we saw each other at the lab every day or so, but now that we’re separated by a couple of thousand miles, we rely on email and telephone calls and occasional visits with each other. At those times we lock ourselves away in an office or library and work, stopping only for meals and coffee. And, in the case of our last visit together (at my place), fur fixes — wherein we stop to pet cats. You’d be amazed at how the problems of explaining some difficult concept in stellar physics somehow get solved after a session with a cat.

Galaxy as seen by the VLT

Galaxy as seen by the VLT

Well, we finished our book last week and now I’m slowly getting my brain back to the real world. All the facts and figures, diagrams, queries to researchers, double-checking of late results — all of that is behind us for now. JC is off on a vacation and I’m sitting here writing a blog entry — my first in several weeks!

I’ll leave today’s entry with a pretty picture. It’s one that didn’t make the cut into the book (remember, we couldn’t have everything!). It’s a galaxy that lies about 7 million light-years away in the Sculptor group of galaxies. This image was taken by the European Southern Observatory, using the Very Large Telescope called ANTU.

A Universal Gesture

A Universal Gesture

This sub-cloud is part of the Eta Carina complex in the southern hemisphere constellation of Carina (The Ship’s Keel). It’s a two-light-year-long region of dense gas and dust that is being eaten away by intense radiation from nearby stars. If there are any newly-forming stars inside this cloud, they’ll stop growing as the gas and dust are destroyed because they won’t have a source of material from which to form. This Carina sub-cloud — imaged by Hubble Space Telescope in 1999 looks so striking because it reminds folks of things that look very familiar — sort of like watching clouds in Earth’s sky and figuring out what they resemble. The scientists who are studying this cosmic cloud suggest that it looks like a superhero flying through a cloud, arm up, with a saved person in tow below. That’s all very noble and could mean lots of things politically. However many folks have seen this for another shape it very closely resembles — as the universe giving us the cosmic finger!