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“With this highly readable and cosmically accessible book Alan Hirshfeld has done for the measurement of the cosmos what Dava Sobel did for the measurement of longitude Readers will never again look into the night sky the same way” —MICHAEL SHERMER author of The Believing Brain on Parallax The Race to Measure the CosmosIn 1930 Edwin Hubble announced the greatest discovery in the history of astronomy since Galileo first turned a telescope to the heavens The galaxies previously believed to float serenely in the void are in fact hurtling apart at an incredible speed; the universe is expanding This stunning discovery was the culmination of a decades long arc of scientific and technical advancement In its shadow lies an untold yet eually fascinating backstory whose cast of characters illuminates the gritty hard won nature of scientific progressThe path to a broader mode of cosmic observation was blazed by a cadre of 19th century amateur astronomers and inventors galvanized by the advent of photography spectral analysis and innovative technology to create the entirely new field of astrophysics From William Bond who turned his home into a functional observatory to John and Henry Draper a father and son team who were trailblazers of astrophotography and spectroscopy to geniuses of invention such as Léon Foucault and George Hale who founded the Mount Wilson Observatory Hirshfeld reveals the incredible stories—and the ambitious dreamers—behind the birth of modern astronomyAlan Hirshfeld Professor of Physics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an Associate of the Harvard College Observatory is the author of Parallax The Race to Measure the Cosmos The Electric Life of Michael Faraday and Eureka Man The Life and Legacy of Archimedes


10 thoughts on “Starlight Detectives

  1. says:

    For astronomy to move from precisely locating bright dots in the sky to understanding the physical nature of the universe the invention development and use of photography was necessary Alan Hirshfeld has written a narrative history of how photography and spectroscopy became essential tools of the astronomer how these tools changed the subject matter of the astronomy and how the sociology of astronomy changed The period of transition was roughly from 1840 to 1930Human eyes do not accumulate light while staring at an object while photographic emulsions and now charged couple device CCD chips can accumulate light Thus longer exposures allow photography to pick up fainter objects unlike human eyes Photography alone would not have been sufficient to learn what we know now about the universe because photographic images alone would not provide evidence regarding what stars and other astronomical objects are made of However when light is diffracted through a prism or a grating as when a rainbow is formed by its interaction with water drops information about the chemical nature of the light source can be inferred because different chemical elements and compounds emit or absorb uniue sets of wavelengths of light this is known as spectroscopy By examining spectra in the lab and comparing these spectra with those from stars and the like the chemical composition of the astronomical body can be inferred Spectroscopy by eye alone is mostly impractical for astronomical purposes as splitting already faint light by passing it through a prism or grating makes it even harder to see By using photography to record the spectrum the latter can be measured Spectroscopy coupled with photography is the source of most of our knowledge of the universe In addition to being the source of our knowledge of the chemical composition of the universe spectroscopy also allows for the determination if objects are moving towards or away from us because of the Doppler effect in which the spectra of moving objects are shifted in comparison to the spectra of a motionless reference laboratory source The Doppler shifts measured by Vesto Slipher Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason in the first third of the twentieth century were some of the first evidence for an expanding universeInterestingly professional astronomers were rather late in taking up these tools and I found Hirshfeld’s exploration of the reasons for this most interesting The small number of professional astronomers at the beginning of this period were focused on the positions of stars partly because the purpose of state funded observatory’s was to provide these star locations so they can be used for maritime navigation and map making Naked eye observations were adeuate for these purposes In addition the first two iterations of photographic techniue the Daguerreotype and the wet plate process did nothing to encourage the professionals to take up photography as these emulsions had low light sensitivity and thus reuired excessive exposure times; in addition the wet plate process reuired the exposure to be complete before the emulsion dried Only in the 1870s did the light sensitive dry plate process evolve Spectroscopy wasn’t put on a good empirical basis until about 1860 thanks to the work of the German scientists Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff Professional astronomers were also slow to take up spectroscopy as well as photography because it wasn’t relevant to their objective in supporting celestial navigationConseuently it was left for amateur astronomers to take up and develop photography and spectroscopy to the point where the professionals became interested My impression is that these amateurs mostly independently wealthy men with time on their hands were attracted as much by the technical challenge of getting all the gadgetry to work as by the possibility of learning about the universe William Higgins a British astronomer who with his wife Margaret Lindsay Higgins did much to pioneer astronomical spectroscopy in the 1860s and 1870s is an example of the type Selling his family’s silk business in 1855 when he was 30 William Higgin’s built a private observatory on his property in Lambeth near London and teamed up with chemistry professor William Allen Miller in the 1860s to visually observe the spectra of Sirius Betelgeuse and Aldebaran which were just bright enough to measure their spectra without photography Higgin’s observatory was no backyard shed containing a small telescope but a two story structure containing an 8 inch refractor mounted to a concrete pier and euipped with a spectroscope in which the spectrum of a star could be compared against a real time reference spectra generated by the current passing through the air of the observatory between two electrodes In the 1870s William and Margaret photographed the spectra of the star VegaSadly but probably inevitably once professionals started using photography and spectroscopy for astrophysics in the 1880s and 1890s a separation between professionals and amateurs developed Before then the observations of amateurs were taken seriously by professionals and amateurs and professionals were members of the same scientific societies Afterwards as astronomy reuired of a mathematics and physics background and as professional telescopes became much larger than could be afforded by even an “average” wealthy amateur amateurs and professionals formed separate societies and read and contributed to separate publications The change in the focus of astronomy from measuring stellar positions to astrophysics also caused contentions among the professionals between traditionalists and those focusing on the possibility of the new techniues to result in a physical understanding of the universe Astronomers who remained focused on recording star locations a group which appears to have been much larger in Europe adapted photography to better pursue this goal as exemplified by the unsatisfactory Carte du Ciel project which started in 1887 and finally ended in 1964 This massive international and collaborative effort was detrimental to those observatories that took part in it locking them into a project that took time away from everything else locked them into an outmoded technology in order to ensure compatibility among the collaborators and generated little in the way of new scientific knowledge Thus the new means could be unwisely used to pursue traditional ends that had little prospect of generating discoveriesI found Hirshfeld’s book uite interesting and found it both in depth on the science and also with attention to the sociological aspects of science than his previous books


  2. says:

    I received Starlight Detectives through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer programAuthor Alan Hirshfeld tells how from about 1840 to 1940 an accelerating series of discoveries pushed the frontiers of astronomical research beyond the reach of amateurs Photography played a critical role as it developed ever fainter objects could be observed Taking advantage of their new capabilities ever larger telescopes situated in and advantageous locations opened the depths of space to the privileged few who had access to themHirshfeld shows vividly how difficult it was to construct the euipment that effected this change to learn to use it and to decide what should be done with it


  3. says:

    Featured on Science for the People show #279 on August 22 2014 during an interview with author Alan Hirshfeld


  4. says:

    I’m not sure exactly what the problem was but Starlight Detectives simply didn’t engage me I listened on Audible and most of the time the text simply washed over me with little if anything sticking in my memory Most of the parts that were interesting—discussions of great discoveries in astronomy or astrophysics—were things I had already read about in greater detail elsewhere To be fair the book was competently written and well researched The problem may have been that the author seemed uncertain whether this was a history of scientific ideas or the hardware and technology that enabled such discoveries Or it may just have been that the book was a bit dull


  5. says:

    Awesome history of photographing the stars astronomy and the tedious yet amazing work that went into to the accomplishments that led to today It can get dry at times heavya bit much for an average bear like myself But you will go away with far than what you came with far The author is extremely knowledgeable and the stories exciting


  6. says:

    An amazing story starting at the birth of celestial photography with images of the Moon all the way to the discovery of the expansion of space Whether you are an astronomer or just curious about astronomy this will be an immensely satisfying and delicious read Many parts of the book brought a tear to my eye I am very sentimental about astronomy though Some of my favourite bits are below I tried not to include too manyHubble's stark pen and ink diagram with its canted empirically derived line endowed James Keeler's turn of the century extragalactic spacescapes with profound meaning The line and its associated mathematical formula VHR later dubbed Hubble's law became twin avatars of what astronomers took to be an expanding universe The universe is dynamic they asserted space itself billowing to vaster proportions sweeping apart its luminous points of reference the galaxies In the time machine of one's imagination the cosmic clock can be driven backwards the observed dispersal of galaxies reversed until atoms and photons meld into an infinitesimal primeval amalgam Thus universal expansion compels a beginning an ab initio hyperdense fireball from which all cosmic energy and matter emerged in modern day parlance the Big BangIt wasn't long before he Henry Draper started to dream as astronomers will of remote mountaintops swathed nightly in utter blackness and desiccated air a truly hospitable home for a telescopeOn August 1 1872 Draper pointed the twenty eight inch telescope euipped with a camera toward the bright star Vega He inserted a small uartz prism into the light path and took an exposure The recorded spectrum was a hazy slash of light a mere half inch long and one thirty second inch wide Microscopic examination revealed the presence of four dark gaps like those Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff had found in the solar spectrum gaps they had identified with chemical elements found on Earth On the glass plate was objective hold in your hand confirmation of what visual spectrum studies had found atoms in the atmospheres of remote stars are no different than those that constitute the Sun or our own bodies Frederick Barnard president of Columbia University characterized the achievement as probably the most difficult and costly experiment in celestial chemistry ever madeLike a cognitive cornucopia science pours forth new uestions as rapidly as it lays aside the old This endless stream of conundrums has sustained inuiring minds for thousands of years The amateurs and professionals who together strove to modernise astronomy exemplify the scientist's ineffable need to confront and vanuish the unknownOther desires perish in the gratification but the desire of knowledge never the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing The sum of things to be known is inexhaustible and however long we read we shall never come to the end of our storybookJames Keeler on Lick Observatory All around the closed packed hive of high technology was a sparsely wooded mountain land where are met only deer skunks suirrels roaming astronomers coyotes an occasional mountain lion a few horses and in summer time rattle snakes while the big black buzzards sail high in the air on the lookout for a little GodA rainbow is nature's most flamboyant expression of the broad phenomenon of colour an aspect of light that astronomers gradually harnessed to great advantageWhile solar researchers haggled over the nature of our nearest star a handful of adventurous astronomers aimed their spectroscopes in the opposite direction toward deep space The challenge to see much less photograph a stellar spectrum using 1860s technology seemed ludicrous to most telescopic observers Even the brightest star in the night sky is one ten billionth the brilliance of the Sun To steer a star's feeble glimmer into the guts of a spectroscope disperse its aggregated wavelengths to the point of near invisibility and then seek to extract any datum of scientific value strains the very definition of optimism To seek such an outcome not just for a star but for a faint diffuse nebula enters the realm of delusion Yet every uncharted realm draws its explorers And the distant the realm the intrepid the explorerA feeling as of inspiration seized me I felt as if I had it now in my power to lift a veil which has never before been lifted; as if a key has been put into my hands which would unlock the unknown mystery of the true nature of the heavenly bodies


  7. says:

    I'm almost finished with this book Recommended by dorjan over on the SDMB my own very amateur interest in astronomy made this worth checking out of the local library Hershfeld takes us back to the 19th century and occasionally the tail of the 18th when men of education money and leisure were instrumental in making scientific discoveries and progress and how the addition of photography and spectroscopy to traditional observation sparked the new field of astrophysics Not only does he provide background on the development of both reflector and refractor telescopes but gives a history of photography as it relates to astronomical observations from the first use of daguerreotypes to dry plate technology Hershfeld also discusses the development of the spectroscope and how its use allowed not only for chemical analysis of the Sun and stars but also for studying the Doppler effect to examine the speed of stars relative to the Earth In addition Hershfeld also provides a look into the lives of the men and occasional woman whose efforts made this new field possible Among the individuals highlighted were William Bond originally a clockmaker whose home observatory earned him an albeit unpaid position at Harvard and with his son discovered Hyperion one of Saturn's moons We also meet John and Henry Draper a father and son team who were trailblazers of astrophotography and spectroscopy I was particularly intrigued to learn about Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff and how their partnership helped develop the science of spectral analysis He also touches on some of the professional rivalries and finagling the story of George Ellery Hale and how he was involved in the founding both the Yerkes Observatory and Mount Wilson Observatory rather interesting Hershfeld also recognizes some of the women who made contributions to the discipline including Maria Mitchell Annie Cannon and Williamina Stevens Fleming If anyone can recommend a good women in astronomy overview I'd be interested While some of the technical discussion got a bit tedious for my personal taste Hershfeld's writing was engaging overall with a nice blend of biographic and historic detail I definitely feel as if I learned something and may pursue further reading regarding some of the men women I was introduced to here


  8. says:

    I got this book through first reads and found it uite informative For someone with only the most minor of astronomy backgrounds like myself the text gets a bit dry at times and it isn't really a heart pounding adventure but it did teach me a number of things I didn't know about how we reached our current place in the stars It starts of with a detailed description on the history of photography and how much that shaped how we view the stars It shows me how much I take for granted looking at pictures of distant galaxies and not fully understanding how many lives have been devoted to acuiring those pictures It also elevated Edwin Hubble to that mythic status with Teddy Roosevelt and Nicola Tesla The book is probably meant for someone with a much stronger interest and background in the field so I found it a little slow going but if you have than a passing interest in those who came before it's a solid read


  9. says:

    A nice diversion from the heavy doses of criminal justice and political reading over the past several months Starlight Detectives chronicles the progression of astronomy in the 19th century as the field shifted from astronomers telling others what they saw to the use of photography to capture celestial images so that all could see the same thing and then to find that the camera captured images unseen by the naked eye Hirshfeld explains many of the technical dimension of the advancements and I could not listen closely enough to understand it all but I got the sense of the developments that led to the discovery of other galaxies and to the Big Bang It was also nice to learn what Hubble did to get a telescope soaring through space named after himMaybe I would have known of this if I could have stayed awake in that TuesThursday 8 am astronomy class during my sopho year of college And maybe not


  10. says:

    Traces the characters advances and technology that helped turn astronomy into astrophysics Spanning roughly eighty years from the early eighteen hundreds to the beginning of the twentieth century Hirshfield traces the history of photography as it is applied to celestial objects shows us how better and better telescopes were developed and explains how the business of fixated stars in the universe came to spur much larger uestions about what they are what our universe isAlong the way we encounter the amateurs passionate kooks with too much money and time and those who slowly turn astronomy into an academic fieldLong detailed and for those truly interested The reader with only a passing interest may find boredom rather than see stars