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Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe

Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe

Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe

Cosmic Odyssey: How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe


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From newborn galaxies to icy worlds and blazing quasars, a behind-the-scenes story of how Palomar Observatory astronomers unveiled our complex universe.

Ever since 1936, pioneering scientists at Palomar Observatory in Southern California have pushed against the boundaries of the known universe, making a series of dazzling discoveries that changed our view of the cosmos: quasars, colliding galaxies, supermassive black holes, brown dwarfs, supernovae, dark matter, the never-ending expansion of the universe, and much more. In Cosmic Odyssey, astronomer Linda Schweizer tells the story of the men and women at Palomar and their efforts to decipher the vast energies and mysterious processes that govern our universe.

Palomar was the Apollo mission of its era. The first images from the 200-inch George Ellery Hale telescope, commissioned in 1948 as the world's largest, generated as much excitement as images from the moon in 1969 and from the Hubble Space Telescope more recently. So far, Palomar's “Big Eye” and three other telescopes have yielded more than 75,000 telescope-nights of precious data. Schweizer takes readers behind the scenes of scientific discovery, mapping the often chaotic process of detours, dead ends, and serendipitous leaps of insight. Although her focus is on Palomar, she follows threads of discovery across the world to other teams and observatories. Based on more than one hundred interviews and enhanced by research in scientific journals, her account paints a fascinating picture of how discrete insights acquired over decades by researchers in a global community cascade, collide, and finally coalesce into the discoveries we come to accept as facts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262044295
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 11/24/2020
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,132,005
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Linda Schweizer holds a PhD in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She has observed at many observatories, published in astronomical journals, and taught science writing and was a Visiting Scholar at the California Institute of Technology, all while raising four daughters.

Table of Contents

Foreword Dava Sobel ix

Preface xi

1 The Promise 1

Architect of an Astrophysical Revolution

The "Big Eye"

Spherical Genius

The Palomar Sky Survey

Widening Horizons

2 Plumbing the Depths of The Universe 19

Blinking Beacons

The Swope Slope

A Glimmer of Things to Come

The Universe Throws Down the Gauntlet

The Whistleblower

"Stupendous Eruptive Phenomena"

Cinderella in the Subbasement

3 Unraveling the Mysteries of Stellar Evolution 45

The Breakthrough

Stellar Radioactivity, Storms, Flares, and Winds

Nucleosynthesis Enshrined

Californium and the Bikini Test

Heavy Metal


Testing Einstein's Theory

4 Milky Way Archaeology 69

Shooting Down the Dogma

Canaries in a Coal Mine The Cannibalistic Milky Way

The Spaghetti Factory

5 Galactic Violence: Collisions and Mergers 85

Cosmic Changelings

A Blind Spot

Nuggets from a Survey

A Field Guide to Oddball Galaxies

The Whirlpool Galaxy and Its Companion

The Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/4039)

Ring Galaxies: Ghostly Apparitions

Forging a New Paradigm

6 Quasars: Wolves in Sheep's Clothing 111

From Local Hiss to Distant Roar

Radio Stars?

Energy Crisis

Agony and Ecstasy

A New Constituent of the Universe

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Quasar

Quasars Throughout the Universe

The Rise and Decline of Quasars

7 Piercing the Galactic "Smog" 139

Far Sighted

Protostars: Galactic Vacuum Cleaners

Evolved Stars: Galactic Smokestacks

Galactic Center, Where Art Thou?

From Oddballs to LIRGs

Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxies: Celebrity Rock Stars

8 Starbursts, Superwinds, and Supermassive Black Holes 157

Flashing Galaxies and the Provenance of Helium

Galactic Bubbles

Galactic Winds

Star Formation in the Middle of Nowhere

Maelstrom in the Nucleus

Black Holes: Central Monsters

The Key to the Vault

9 Probing the Gaseous Universe 181

A Spike of Light

Perfect Instrument Meets Perfect Telescope

Quasar Absorption Lines: A Biometric Passport

Gamma-Ray Bursts: High-Beam Dazzlers

10 From Ghosts to Galaxies: The Emergence of Structure 195

Distant Shadows Red and Blue

E+A Galaxies

Ring of Fire

The Far Side of the Universe

Galaxy Clustering and Lyman-a Blobs

Violent Winds

11 Solar System Shuffle 213

The Buccaneers

Jupiter's Hotspots

From Frying Pan to Fire

Lord of the Planets


Bolide Flashes and Splashes

Solar System Refrigerators Fragments from the Oort Cloud

Tallying Pieces of the Puzzle Anatomy of a Murder: The Demise of Pluto as a Planet

Seeking Planet X: Hindsight Seeking Planet Nine

12 Astronomical Exotica: New Frontiers 239

Runts of Star Formation

The Right Stuff

Hitting Pay Dirt with a Common Little M Star

Floating Dirt, Iron Rain, Magenta

Skies, and Violent Storms

In Search of Pale Blue Dots


Transients, Superluminous Supernovae, and the Future of Observational Astronomy

The Transient Universe

The Fountainhead

Acknowledgments 271

Notes 277

Index 293

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Cosmic Odyssey vividly captures one of the greatest eras in the history of astronomy. Rich in scientific detail and written with an engaging flair, this account by Linda Schweizer—who played a role in the journey—reveals both the triumphs and foibles as 20th-century observers discovered a violent universe never before imagined. This should be required reading for every astronomer-in-training.”
—Marcia Bartusiak, author of The Day We Found the Universe and Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony
“In this extremely well-researched biography of one of astronomy’s ‘sacred mountains,’ Schweizer charts—in vivid and captivating detail—the many discoveries of the near and far universe and the minds and hands that propelled them.”
—Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Professor, Yale University; author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos
“Majestically told, lavishly illustrated, and meticulously documented, Linda Schweizer’s vivid portrayal of the personalities that brought the cosmos into focus—most notably Palomar Mountain, the renowned cosmic cathedral and the book’s protagonist—reads like a novel and is impossible to put down.”
—Brian Keating, Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Physics, University of California, San Diego; author of Losing the Nobel Prize
“The 200-inch telescope at Palomar Mountain ruled as the world’s premier astronomical instrument for 40 years. In Cosmic Odyssey, Linda Schweizer goes beyond the masterful technology to show what this marvel was used for, who was doing it, and what they achieved.”
—Robert P. Kirshner, Professor of Science, Harvard University; author of The Extravagant Universe
Cosmic Odyssey is an important book that tells the story of the Palomar Observatory, one of the most important groups of scientific instruments in history. Schweizer gives us crystalline detail, deep knowledge of the process of science, and intimate portraits of great astronomers, deepened by years of conducting interviews with them. Cosmic Odyssey is an achievement and a treasure.”
—Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe

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