The Universe in A Mirror, Robert Zimmerman, Princeton Univ Press, 2008, 287pp, £17.95/$29.95, ISBN 978-0-691-13297-6 [hardback]
There have been so many books on the Hubble Space Telescope in the past ten years that an author has to be sure that his treatment is new to stand a chance of success. While the telescope continues to churn out stunning images of the universe there will always be a place for the coffee-table glossies, but surely we know all there is to know about the HST’s genesis, optical problems and subsequent rebirth? Well, possibly not.
Certainly, it’s a long story. Paraphrasing the author’s preface, the telescope was conceived in the 1940s and ‘50s; designed in the 1960s; built in the 1970s and 80s; and fixed in the 1990s. This book tells the story of “a few of the men and women who conceived, designed, built, repaired, and saved Hubble over the decades”. It tells how many “sacrificed years” to the telescope, and how some “even ruined their lives and careers to get it built”. In a world enamoured of celebrity culture and reality TV, this is the sort of real-life story that should be told.
The author does so in eight chapters covering the telescope’s long gestation period, the problems getting money to build it and the equally challenging issues of building and maintaining it. For a history, the text is accessible and entertaining, and it comes complete with 16 pages of chapter notes, a substantial bibliography and a 17-page index. Black-and-white photos are scattered throughout the text and, to remind us what the HST is all about, there is a 16-page colour insert showing some of those images.
The back story to Lyman Spitzer’s proposal for a space telescope (which eventually became the Hubble) is fascinating, not least because it shows how difficult it is to be a thinker ahead of one’s time. In 1946, 11 years before Sputnik, Spitzer was proposing a space-based telescope larger than the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar (even before the ground-based version was completed) – no wonder many took him less than seriously! Spitzer was in good company, however, with the likes of Fred Whipple and Martin Schwarzchild on his side, with Whipple even suggesting lightheartedly that the telescope be called the “Great Orbiting Device”, or GOD. Apparently, Leo Goldberg, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, objected on the grounds that the senators who would have to approve it “think of themselves as God”…so it became the Large Space Telescope (LST).
Then there is the story of Bob O’Dell, the man asked by Spitzer and German rocket pioneer Ernst Stuhlinger to be project scientist for the LST. He fought to maintain the telescope in NASA’s budget and became “devoted” to getting it built. But it destroyed his career in the process and contributed to the collapse of his marriage. Sadly, in common with other great scientific and engineering achievements, a happy balance between professional and personal lives escapes even the brightest of individuals.
Lyman Spitzer’s own story ends on a more positive note, however. He lived to see the early success of the Hubble Space Telescope and was closely involved with ensuring the quality of its scientific output. As the author puts it, “every astronomer I have spoken to about Spitzer is eternally grateful”, which is not bad for someone who once had a crazy idea…but pursued it until it made sense. This book brings Spitzer and the other names behind the telescope to life.