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Measuring the Universe: Our Historic Quest to Chart the horizons of Space and Time Hardcover – July 1, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (July 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713513
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713513
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,791,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If you want to measure how big a stick is, you can use a ruler. Want to know how tall a windmill is? Don't waste time climbing to the top with a long measuring tape. Instead, use the old shadow trick--measure the length of a yardstick's shadow, then measure the windmill's shadow and use ratios to figure out the windmill's height. Even though the windmill is big and intimidating, you can find out its size while remaining safely on the ground. This is the first example in science author Kitty Ferguson's fine book Measuring the Universe, and it sets the reader's brain firmly on the right track for understanding.

The topic here is measurement of faraway, distant, difficult things. Starting with Eratosthenes, who found a way of measuring the earth's circumference, and continuing through to modern astrophysicists' quest to measure the universe itself, Ferguson takes us on a full tour of the seemingly immeasurable. Readers are treated to enthusiastic chapters covering all the basic steps astronomers (dating back to Aristarchus of Samos) have taken to understand the arrangement of astronomical objects. How big are stars? Is that black hole moving toward us or away from us? Where is the edge of everything? And how big will the universe get before it stops expanding? You'll meet the men and women who have sought answers to these seemingly impossible questions in this accessible history. Ferguson brilliantly illuminates their personal quests and demonstrates the usefulness of each discovery in driving the next attempt to measure the universe. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

When you wish upon a star, do you ever consider that the bright one over there in the Hyades might be closer than the one in the Big Dipper that you usually wish on? Or that your wish might get there faster? Although even the closest star (Proxima Centauri) is so far away (25 1/4 trillion miles) that humanity will probably never travel to it, Ferguson (Prisons of Light: Black Holes) demonstrates why knowing its distance from us is important, and not just for reasons of wish fulfillment. For only by drawing an accurate scale map of the universe, she explains, can scientists estimate its age, one of the most hotly contested issues of our time. Ferguson begins with attempts in antiquity to establish the distance to the sun and the five planets seen by the naked eye. She discusses the findings of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and how each drew on the others' work. Her simple explanations of the discoveries of stellar parallax, the Doppler effect and redshift, and of absorption spectra make important scientific concepts clear for general readers. She goes on to elucidate how astronomers determine how far away other stars are by using a type of star called Cepheid, as well as the spectacular stellar self-destructions known as supernovae as "standard candles." To conclude her engrossing survey, Ferguson covers some of the paradoxes that scientists confront, such as that some estimates of the age of the universe have determined that it is younger than some of its oldest stars, and that the amount of observable mass in the universe is only about 10% of what should be there. (July)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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You will learn what we know, and how much more we have to learn.
Richard Fitzgerald
This is a great physics detective story, and it blends history and science together to give a picture of how we have measured what was once considered unmeasurable.
S. D. Weitzenhoffer
Kitty Ferguson writes about a deep subject with clarity and enthusiasm.
FREldridge@aol.com

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By FREldridge@aol.com on September 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Kitty Ferguson writes about a deep subject with clarity and enthusiasm. This book describes homo sapiens' attempts to understand the Universe, from the time of Eratosthenes' elegant method of inferring the Earth's diameter in the 3rd century BC; to the end of the second millennium AD, with its Hubble Space Telescope views and the theoretical models of Einstein, Hawking, et al.It is a facinating story that should be required reading.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book about how scientists have measured various things in nature, from the radius of the earth to the size of the universe. It is a bit too historical for my tastes and that is why I give it four stars. It joins two other wonderful science books to appear this year: "THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE" and "THE BIBLE ACCORDING TO EINSTEIN"
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By David A. Foster on November 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was wowed by this book completely. The narrative of the relationship between the Catholic church and the sciences alone made it worthwhile. If you haven't read a book such as this and think you know what really happened with Galileo Galilei... well, you probably don't.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 16, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a very readable book, with many ups and downs. It tells the story of key contributors to our understanding of the universe and their quest to measure it in their time and with the tools available to them. It also does a very good job of explaining some basic concepts. It doesn't do such a good job with more complex concepts. And there are some simple concepts that just don't need to be explained repetitively.
For instance, the explanations and diagrams explaining parallax are very good. Sometime after that the term parsec appears in the text without any explanation at all. Another example: Cepheid stars are fundamental to current attempts to measure the distant objects, and that is made very clear. But why we can and should depend on Cepheids is not explained. A final example: I don't know how many times she explains that 10 with an exponent menas one followed by that number of zeros, or preceded by that number of zeroes for a negative exponent - but it is way, way more times than necessary and occurs throughout the entire book.
A second edition, perhaps with better editing, could easily be much better and be a very good book. Never-the-less, this book is interesting and generally easy to read, and covers a lot of ground about the participants.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By S. D. Weitzenhoffer on September 14, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a great physics detective story, and it blends history and science together to give a picture of how we have measured what was once considered unmeasurable.
There are some minor annoyances, such as her repeatedly explaining scientific notation (perhaps a brief appendix could be included in a future edition). Also, she could have explained how the parsec came to be, rather than just using it with no explanation.
There are some notes at the end of the book that give the reader suggestions for further reading. To her credit, she includes Halton Arp's concerns about the use of redshift (See Arp's book, Seeing Red).
This book builds up a clear picture of how we built up the cosmic distance ladder, and the missteps along the way.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Richard Fitzgerald on April 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book weaves lucid science and history together into a most fascinating tapestry. You will learn about the search for the size of the universe, but you will also learn about the world around you. You will learn how science works, and how people work. You will learn what we know, and how much more we have to learn. This is a beautifully crafted book and well worth the time of scientists, historians, and normal people too!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Darren Osborne on January 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
I have always had a love of astronomy and space exploration, but the distances and measurements used by stargazers always bewildered me. `Measuring the Universe' takes you through, step by step, each astronomical discovery, and the people and methods used, to assist you in better understanding concepts such as `What is a parsec?' or `How do they measure the distance to a star?' (not as accurate as I thought).
There are also interesting stories about the private lives of some astronomers such as Eratsthenes of Cyrene (measured the diameter of the Earth), Galileo and Edwin Hubble.
A clever mix of textbook and novel, something that any budding or professional astronomer should read.
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