Turn Right at Orion: Travels Through the Cosmos

Turn Right at Orion: Travels Through the Cosmos

by Mitchell Begelman
     
 

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Turn Right at Orion is the account of an epic astronomical journey, discovered sixty million years in Earth's future-the product of one man's amazing, revelatory, and occasionally perilous space odyssey. Astrophysicist Mitchell Begelman takes the reader to far distant shores, across a vast ocean of time, in a narrative style that zips along at just below

Overview

Turn Right at Orion is the account of an epic astronomical journey, discovered sixty million years in Earth's future-the product of one man's amazing, revelatory, and occasionally perilous space odyssey. Astrophysicist Mitchell Begelman takes the reader to far distant shores, across a vast ocean of time, in a narrative style that zips along at just below light speed. We travel to the center of the Milky Way, witness the births and deaths of stars and of planets, and almost perish in the crushing forces at the perimeter of a black hole-and all the while Begelman explains in clear and vibrant prose how things work the way they do in the cosmos. Turn Right at Orion is a serious science book that reads like fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Harvard Magazine
A creative, informative, even entertaining work of scientific fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780738205175
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
09/26/2001
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
6.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: To the Center of the Milky Way?

No sooner had I decided to go than I began to get cold feet. This wasn't fear of Rocinante's reliability-I was confident of my craft's propulsion and life support systems. It was not even fear of the unknown-in my arrogance, I thought I knew what I would find. This was fear of the unseen, the terror that strikes fogbound drivers: I could not see where I was going. To a casual viewer on Earth, the center of the Milky Way seems a nonexistent destination. If you don't believe me, go outside during July or August and try to find it for yourself in the night sky. It is easy enough to trace the Milky Way's luminous band as it sweeps through the ancient constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus, soars across the equator in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle), heads southward through the obscure star pattern of Scutum, and crosses the ecliptic-the path of the planets-in the zodiacal realm of Sagittarius. What appears as a band on the sky is really the cross section of a vast slab of stars seen from within, from a site near the midplane. People had figured out that much in the eighteenth century. Astronomers later determined that the slab is really a disk, complete with a far-off center. But the location of the latter is anything but obvious.

Scutum looked like a promising site for the kind of glitter one might expect to find at the pivot of a major spiral galaxy, so I decided to study its environs more closely. It certainly ranks as the constellation with the most arcane etymology. Scutum Sobieskii-Sobieski's Shield-is the only constellation named to honor a flesh-and-blood military hero, John Sobieski, who saved Poland from Swedish domination in the seventeenth century and then went on to defeat the Turks at Vienna. It is suitably decorated. With simple binoculars, I spotted the brilliant "open" star clusters Messier 11 and 26, looking like sprays of small diamonds scattered on black velvet. But these attractions proved to be scarcely outside Earth's neighborhood. Farther south, near Scutum's boundary with Sagittarius, I noticed two enormous glowing clouds of gas: the Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae, more distant versions of the Great Nebula of Orion that I was to visit later on. Yet even these are not the unique kinds of markers one would expect to find at the geometric center of a gigantic stellar merry-go-round like the Milky Way. I was getting discouraged, but it also turned out that I was getting warm.

I was staring straight in the direction of the Milky Way's center but didn't realize it. What I saw was a warren of bright ridges and dark lanes, broadening and seeming to become more complex and convoluted as I traced the Milky Way's path southward into Sagittarius. There was still no sign of the center, but it was there all the same, hidden by a screen of dust. In my defense, even the best astronomers of the early twentieth century had had a tough time determining the Milky Way's center, to say nothing of the Galaxy's size and shape. They thought they had it in 1920, when a Dutch astronomer named Kapteyn mistakenly concluded that Earth occupied the place of honor. But "Kapteyn's Universe" turned out to be no more than the local patch of galaxy surrounding Earth. Kapteyn had estimated the distances of stars in different directions around the sky, assuming that the dimmer stars were farther, on average, in inverse proportion to the square root of their brightnesses...

Meet the Author

Mitchell Begelman is Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and Fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of many research papers on astrophysics and the co-author-with Sir Martin Rees-of the acclaimed popular science book, Gravity's Fatal Attraction, which won the 1996 American Institute of Physics Writing Award.

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