Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak
Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond (2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.
For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-planets. For those who do read a lot of such books (I include myself in this category), while much of this will be familiar territory, some will be new, whether because the discovery is so recent or because Bartusiak digs up a rarely-told bit of information from well-trod ground.
Somewhat in that vein, one of the most welcome aspects of Dispatches from Planet 3 is how Bartusiak reclaims long overdue acknowledgement for several important figures — most of them women who were overlooked out of prejudice, but some who were simply lost to history. Among the ones who finally earn their due recognition amongst the general public are:
- Jocelyn Bell, who in 1967 discovered the data “scruff” that turned out to be the first pulsar and whose name was left out when it came to the 1974 Nobel.
- Beatrice Tinsley, one of the people largely responsible for determining that galaxies were not static objects, and whose career was cut brutally short by cancer at age 40.
- Helen Payne, who downplayed/softened her outlier theory (based on her own calculations) that hydrogen was the most abundant element in the universe due to pressure from her professor (who, of course, later published a famous paper confirming her theory only a few years later once astronomical evidence had caught up to her math).
- Vesto Slipher, the guy who actually did the grunt work of spectography/astral photography and observation that led to Hubble’s famed discovery that the universe was expanding (at a rate known as the Hubble Constant versus the Slipher Constant).
As an introduction to the major discoveries and theories of astrophysics in the past 100 years or so, Dispatches from Planet 3 makes for an excellent primer, with enough information, despite the concision of each piece, that one could happily stop there, but also engaging enough to convince a good number of its readers I would guess to continue with further, more in-depth reading.