Thursday, April 24, 2008

Book Review: The Mysterious Universe

On this day in 1990, the Hubble Telescope was launched. Named after astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, "the Hubble Space Telescope is a large, space-based observatory which has revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedented deep and clear views of the Universe, ranging from our own solar system to extremely remote fledgling galaxies forming not long after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago." Now in its sixteenth year of operation, it has had four servicing missions, with the fifth and final servicing mission set for August 28, 2008 which will further its continued success through the year 2013.

Edwin Hubble was the first astronomer to discover that the universe is expanding. A new book, The Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy, and Black Holes written by Ellen Jackson with photographs and illustrations by Nic Bishop (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), takes an in depth look at the expanding universe.

Following the format of other successful books in the Scientists In the Field series (Tarantula Scientist, Snake Scientist, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, Looking for Life in the Universe) Jackson and Bishop follow Dr. Alex Fillippenko and his High-Z Supernova Search Team to Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, where they will study space phenomena and look for supernovae, dying stars that explode with the power of billions of hydrogen bombs.

Long, long ago and far, far away, a huge explosion rocked a distant galaxy. Tonight, billions of years later, a few tiny bits of light from that event have finally reached Earth, where they've just left a telltale trace on astronomer Alex Filippenko's monitor.
"Wahoo!" he shouts. "We nailed it. We've got a Type 1a (One-A) supernova!"
He jumps up and gives everyone a high-five. Alex is a whirlwind, full of energy and always on the go. Maybe that's why he studies supernovae, some of the greatest explosions in the universe.

This opening scene from the first section of the book titled, A Blast from the Past, takes place in the Keck telescope control room in Waimea, Big Island, Hawaii. You can't help but get caught up in the excitement, which is what I really enjoy about all of the books in this series. Each book captures the passion and enthusiasm of the scientist featured ,which sheds a refreshing light on the stereotypical "boring" job of the scientist.

I especially enjoy how Jackson characterizes Alex as not only an academic, but as a multifaceted individual that kids (and everyone) can relate to:

Alex liked science even as a child. He once found a female spider and brought her inside, hiding her under the stairs. Soon the house was full of baby spiders. He brought magnets to school and played with them for hours, dragging them through the sand in the sandbox to pick up iron filings.
But, the school counselor didn't recognize him as a budding scientist. She thought Alex spent too much time with the magnets instead of with other children. "I don't know why she was concerned," says Alex. "I had friends. We used to play Red Rover together. I was really good at it." then he adds with a smile, "She also thought I ate too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

Alex has also won awards for his unique teaching and research: "He uses music, balls, doughnuts, and even T-shirt diagrams to help explain astronomical ideas to his students" and on Halloween he dresses up as a black hole. Alex--who teaches at UC Berkeley--has been awarded Best Professor on Campus five times! On his free time, he likes to play tennis, hike, and boogie board.

Jackson weaves information explaining supernovae, black holes, and dark energy with Alex Filippenko's research and Nic Bishop's amazing photographs and illustrations resulting in a clearly written, understandable, interesting and enjoyable book that upper elementary and middle school kids will find fascinating and interesting.

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