- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

In Astronomical Enigmas: Life On Mars, The Star Of Bethlehem And Other Milky Way Mysteries (Johns Hopkins, $29.95, 256 pages), Mark Kidger begins his fascinating account of outstanding astronomical mysteries with a prologue that asks “Why study the universe.” He quotes the response the physicist Richard Feynman gave when he was asked by a group of congressmen what contribution a huge and very expensive accelerator used for research into elementary particle physics made to national defense. The irrepressible Feynman replied, “Nothing. It just makes the country worth defending.” The problems Mr. Kidger, a British astronomer, discusses in “Astronomical Enigmas” are more accessible to the layman than are those of particle physics and some have been around for thousands of years for anyone who cared to ask. The answers, though, remain elusive.

He begins with Stonehenge, “the most famous ancient monument in the world after the Pyramids.” Radiocarbon dating of relics of tools (made from bone and antler) apparently used during construction of the monument suggest that this intermittent process took about 1,500 years, with the first stage beginning about 5,000 years ago. The effort required to move the stones, which weigh up to 45 tons each, several hundred miles from their sites or origin was perhaps even more monumental than the results and nobody knows the purpose of the exercise, although the orientation of the stones suggests that timing astronomical phenomena may have had something to do with it. Mr. Kidger concludes that it is foolish to expect that we will ever have the answers. It is very clear, though, that the builders of Stonehenge “were not … ignorant, unsophisticated people.”

Mr. Kidger’s other excursions into history include an exhaustive effort to identify the “star of Bethlehem” in terms of astronomical phenomena that are either recorded in other historical sources or can be calculated, a quest that also ends with a shrug of the shoulders. He achieves more success in a discussion of Comet Halley, the most famous comet of all, which reports on attempts to track down all written records of its reappearances.. After explaining why the actual interval between the comet’s reappearances, usually simply stated as about 76 years, actually varies between 74 and 79 years, he tells us that there have been just 30 appearances in recorded history. The most recent, in 1986, was the least bright of any in the past 2,000 years. If it is any consolation, Halley should be very bright on its next-plus-one return in 2134, hopefully to be seen by our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren.

The book’s second section homes in on the solar system, with discussions of the moon and how it may become a base for advanced space exploration during this century; the quest for life on Mars, which remains inconclusive because any life form there is likely to be very simple and well hidden beneath the surface; how Pluto was discovered, and the continuing controversy over whether it should be considered as a planet or should be reclassified as an asteroid or one of many “trans-Neptunian objects,” some of which are larger than Pluto.

In the third section, Mr. Kidger reviews some widely publicized doomsday scenarios for life on earth. One is a catastrophic collision with an asteroid or a comet, like the one that is widely believed to have ended the era of the dinosaurs. He predicts this is unlikely for the next 25 million years or so, at which time the solar system is due to cross the densely populated (with stars) plane of the galaxy. Smaller collisions are more likely, but the advance of technology will help us handle them, he feels. Next, he discusses the danger of a runaway greenhouse effect caused by human activity. His nuanced answer is that “it is quite possible that we will not know the answer to this question for at least a century.” He concludes with a pitch for a new manned spaceflight program, “the goose that will someday lay the golden egg.” Mr. Kidger’s lively writing and clear exposition make the book both enjoyable and informative.

Iwan Rhys Morus is a historian at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth and his When Physics Became King (University of Chicago, $25, 288 pages) describes the rise of the discipline of physics in the 19th century from “a science that barely existed in 1800” to one that was “the ultimate key to unlocking nature’s secrets.” Before the term “physicist” was coined around 1830 by William Whewell, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge (he also originated the word “scientist”), those who followed in Newton’s footsteps and plumbed the depths of nature by experiment and mathematical analysis of the results called themselves “natural philosophers.”

These men were not only serious scientists, but showmen, whose imaginative lectures accompanied by spectacular demonstrations of electrical and chemical phenomena drew large and appreciative audiences. Those audiences included many members of the burgeoning middle class who soon realized that they could earn a good living by making and selling practical new devices based on the new scientific knowledge. Others were also concerned with the benefits that could flow to their nations if they mastered the rapidly expanding new scientific knowledge. Mr. Morus traces the steps taken in France, England and Germany to harness this new source of wealth and power.

In revolutionary and Napoleonic France, the new Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Normale were established to identify and train budding new savants in mathematics and science. In England, the hidebound Cambridge syllabus was radically transformed for mathematically adept students by the introduction of the mathematical tripos, which subjected them to a rigorous course of training in mathematics and its applications culminating in a grueling examination. The top-ranking student was given the title “senior wrangler” (which does not refer, as the uninitiated might think, to a retired rodeo star) who was paraded around the town on his fellow students’ shoulders and became a national celebrity. Many senior wranglers did not become professional mathematicians but preferred to enter the civil service and go overseas to rule the empire instead. However, the leaders of British physics in the 19th century, including William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated the mathematical laws of electromagnetism among his other achievements, came from the wranglers’ ranks (or should we say wranks?.)

As physics flourished, its practitioners built new institutions where they could teach and perform experimental research. Mr. Morus shows that these institutions went beyond the traditional bounds of academia, in particular demonstrating how astronomical observatories took on many of the characteristics of factories. He takes the story to the beginning of the 20th century, when new discoveries including and X-rays required the wholesale rewriting of the Newtonian picture of the world that had made classical physics “the Queen of the sciences.” That rewriting was done by a new generation of physicists, who brought their profession even more glory as they brought the atom under human control. But that is another story.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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