Coming of Age in the Milky Way

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-12-08
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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From the second-century celestial models of Ptolemy to modern-day research institutes and quantum theory, this classic book offers a breathtaking tour of astronomy and the brilliant, eccentric personalities who have shaped it. From the first time mankind had an inkling of the vast space that surrounds us, those who study the universe have had to struggle against political and religious preconceptions. They have included some of the most charismatic, courageous, and idiosyncratic thinkers of all time. In Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris uses his unique blend of rigorous research and captivating narrative skill to draw us into the lives and minds of these extraordinary figures, creating a landmark work of scientific history.

Author Biography

Timothy Ferris is emeritus professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Table of Contents

The Dome of Heavenp. 19
Raising (and Lowering) the Roofp. 33
The Discovery of the Earthp. 47
The Sun Worshipersp. 61
The World in Retrogradep. 83
Newton's Reachp. 103
A Plumb Line to the Sunp. 123
Deep Spacep. 143
Island Universesp. 161
Einstein's Skyp. 177
The Expansion of the Universep. 205
Sermons in Stonesp. 217
The Age of the Earthp. 231
The Evolution of Atoms and Starsp. 255
The Quantum and Its Discontentsp. 285
Rumors of Perfectionp. 301
The Axis of Historyp. 335
The Origin of the Universep. 349
Mind and Matterp. 367
The Persistence of Mysteryp. 381
Addendum to the Perennial Editionp. 389
Glossary: A Brief History of the Universep. 421
Notesp. 437
Bibliographyp. 451
Indexp. 495
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


Coming of Age in the Milky Way

Chapter One

The Dome of Heaven

You may have heard the music of Man but not the music of Earth. You may have heard the music of Earth but not the music of Heaven.
-- Chuang Tzu

Had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man.
-- Plato

The skies of our ancestors hung low overhead. When the ancient Sumerian, Chinese, and Korean astronomers trudged up the steps of their squat stone ziggurats to study the stars, they had reason to assume that they obtained a better view that way, not, as we would say today, because they had surmounted a little dust and turbulent air, but because they had got themselves appreciably closer to the stars. The Egyptians regarded the sky as a kind of tent canopy, supported by the mountains that demarked the four corners of the earth, and as the mountains were not all that high, neither, presumably, were the heavens; the gigantic Egyptian constellations hovered close over humankind, as proximate as a mother bending to kiss a sleeping child. The Greek sun was so nearby that Icarus had achieved an altitude of only a few thousand feet when its heat melted the wax in his wings, sending the poor boy plunging into the uncaring Aegean. Nor were the Greek stars significantly more distant; when Phaethon lost control of the sun it veered into the stars as suddenly as a swerving chariot striking a signpost, then promptly rebounded to earth (toasting the Ethiopians black on its way down).

But if our forebears had little notion of the depths of space, they were reasonably well acquainted with the two-dimensional motions of the stars and planets against the sky, and it was by studying these motions that they were led, eventually, to consider the third dimension as well. Since the days of the ancient Sumerians and probably before, there had been students of the night sky willing to devote their evening hours to the lonely business of squinting and straining to take sightings over aligned rocks or along wooden quadrants or simply across their fingers and thumbs, patiently keeping records of what they saw. It was a lot of trouble. Why did they bother?

Part of the motive may have had to do with the inchoate longing, mysterious but persistent then as now, to express a sense of human involvement with the stars. As Copernicus noted, reverence for the stars runs so deep in human consciousness that it is embedded in the language itself. "What is nobler than the heavens," he wrote, "the heavens which contain all noble things? Their very names make this clear: Caelum (heavens) by naming that which is beautifully carved; and Mundus (world), purity and elegance." Even Socrates, though personally indifferent toward astronomy, conceded that the soul "is purified and kindled afresh" by studying the sky.

There were obvious practical incentives as well. Navigation, for one: Mariners could estimate their latitude by measuring the elevation of the pole star, and could tell time by the positions of the stars, and these advantages were sufficiently appreciated that seafaring peoples codified them in poetry and mythology long before the advent of the written word. When Homer says that the Bear never bathes, he is passing along the seafarer's knowledge that Ursa Major, the constellation that contains the Big Dipper, is circumpolar at Mediterranean latitudes-that is, that it never sinks beneath the ocean horizon.

Another practical motive was timekeeping. Early farmers learned to make a clock and a calendar of the moving sky, and consulted almanacs etched in wood or stone for astronomical guidance in deciding when to plant and harvest their crops ...

Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Copyright © by Timothy Ferris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
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