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Coming of Age in the Milky Way

Coming of Age in the Milky Way

3.2 5
by Timothy Ferris

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The ancient Egyptians regarded the sky as a kind of tent canopy. Thirty centuries later, astronomer William Herschel argued that the sun belongs to a huge cluster of stars (a galaxy, as we call it today) and charted great swaths of intergalactic space through a telescope. How the human species slowly awakened to the vast reaches of space and time is the story absorbingly told by popular science writer Ferris (The Red Limit, Galaxies). His narrative humanizes the scientific enterpriseGalileo emerges here as a careerist, and Johannes Kepler as a self-loathing neurotic. Although it covers well-trod ground, this remarkable synthesis makes broad areas of science accessible to the layperson, from Darwin's and Lyell's investigations of the age of the earth to modern physicists' quest for a perfectly symmetrical, hyperdimensional universe. BOMC alternate. (July)
School Library Journal
YA In the first section, Ferris uses historical anecdotes to relate astronomical discoveries and the foibles of their discoverers in a successful attempt to show the ``big names'' of science as real persons, warts and all. The second section, on the history of space and time, is also well done, if lacking in the human details. The third section, which deals with cosmology and modern physics, uses a philosophical approach to discuss difficult material; the result is not easy to absorb, but it is good base material for students who will ask questions and go further on their own. Throughout the book, introductory quotations are used to advantage to tease readers into the next topic. Bob Fliess, Episcopal High School, Bellaire, Tex .
Charles McGrath
....[F]everish and breathless toward the end, where it deals with a bewildering array of new sciences and discoveries, this book is a glorious adventure for the reader. -- The New York Times Books of the Century

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Coming of Age in the Milky Way

By Timothy Ferris

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Timothy Ferris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060535954

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 ...


Excerpted from Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Ferris. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Timothy Ferris's works include Seeing in the Dark, The Mind's Sky (both New York Times best books of the year), and The Whole Shebang (listed by American Scientist as one of the one hundred most influential books of the twentieth century). A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ferris has taught in five disciplines at four universities. He is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a former editor of Rolling Stone. His articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Scientific American, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications. A contributor to CNN and National Public Radio, Ferris has made three prime-time PBS television specials: The Creation of the Universe, Life Beyond Earth, and Seeing in the Dark. He lives in San Francisco.

Brief Biography

San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:
August 29, 1944
Place of Birth:
Miami, Florida
B.S., Northwestern University, 1966

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Coming of Age in the Milky Way 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book completely opened my eyes to a whole new world. Historically and scientifically very interesting, and Ferris explains it in such a way that you can both understand and appreciate the information.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Timothy Ferris faced a daunting task in writing the history of man's search to understand the universe we live in. Did he succeed? At times I was more confused than enlightened but I felt that, overall, the book was worthwhile and I had learned something about the subject. Perhaps, had he narrowed hos focus strictly to the heavens and not made side trips into Darwin, string theory etc., the book would have been less daunting. I also felt the chapter on other intelligent life in the universe was a bit loopy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago