Heaven's net casts wide.
Though its meshes are coarse, nothing slips through.
-- Lao Tzu
If ever there was a physical manifestation of poetry, the starry sky at night, the panoply of objects that populate the heavens, would come close. The character of Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact exclaims, upon seeing the glorious objects of the universe up close during her epic flight, 'Poetry! They should have sent a poet!'
This book, Galaxies, is a book on a grand scale, as is its subject. It is a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book the size of a small coffee table, the pages measure 13 inches by 15 inches, a huge footprint of a book, with most of the photographs and diagrams sized full-page.
Timothy Ferris, at the time of this book was first published, was a professor of English at Brooklyn College CUNY. He has since gone on to fame as a science writer, particularly in the field of astronomy, and now teaches astronomy and science writing on the other coast, at UC Berkeley. Largely due to clear writing, diligent research that is thorough, and a good eye for visuals (astronomy is a visual science in many ways, and Ferris selected the photographs for this book himself) Ferris has put together a tremendous introduction to the subject of galaxies, impressing with the scale of the book the tremendous size and scale of galaxies.
Being an English professor, he of course had a wide knowledge of literature, and this is apparent from his choice of side notes, quotes and references, which populate not only the captions and taglines, but interpermeate the text on a regular basis. Here in the midst of scientific discussion one will find quotes from Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, St. Juliana, Heraclitus, Ben Jonson, and more.
The first section deals with the basic definitions of what a galaxy is, the discovery of galaxies, and our place (and their place) in the cosmos. From here, Ferris takes us on a brief tour of the galaxy from the inside, using of course our own Milky Way galaxy, the only galaxy we can know from the inside. By looking at the constituent elements of a galaxy--stars, nebulae, star clusters, supernovae and black holes--Ferris introduces us to the life cycle of stars and some of the dynamics of galactic formation and evolution. Some of the more stunning photographs of this book are in this section, particularly the nebulae (gaseous formations that represent both the beginning and the end of life cycles of stars).
From a tour of our own galaxy, Ferris proceeds to the Local Group of Galaxies, and begins a discussion of the different kinds of galaxies. Our own, the Milky Way, is a fairly large spiral galaxy. This is not the most common type, however, nor the most rare. Our galaxy has attendant galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (named so because they are only visible from the Southern Hemisphere; named in honour of a European explorer who trekked down there), which are mostly blobs of stars, with no formal structure as a spiral would have. The nearest spiral is the Andromeda, part of the local pair (most spirals come in pairs). Andromeda also has smaller, blob-like satellite galaxies, with a smaller proto-spiral (M33) not far off.
In the next section, Ferris examines the types of galaxies which populate the Local Group, the Local Supergroup, and other groupings of galaxies. These include elliptical galaxies, spiral galaxies, barred spiral galaxies, and lenticular (or SO) galaxies. Ellipticals often appear as blobs, sometimes with halos, and no intricate structures. Spirals can be more of less tightly 'wound', arms around a nucleus with a bulge. Barred spirals are more intricate yet, and have a 'bar' or spindle-shaped grouping of stars that extends straight out from the central bulge and nucleus, to which the arms of the spiral seem to be attached. Lenticular galaxies are hardest yet to categorise--they might be ellipticals in a spiral mode, perhaps somehow robbed of their arms. How they evolved is a mystery. Beyond this, there are yet other irregular galaxies, which are often the results of galactic collisions and gravitational interferences.
Some galaxies seem to have violent events occurring, gaseous jets or lots of light and radio activity which speaks of harsh activity. Vast energy spikes and marred appearances give an interesting flavour to astronomical research. Often these happen from interactive galaxies, in which they are playing off each other, or indeed, as some will swallow up others.
Ferris continues his outward rush to the very limits of the universe, until we encounter quasars, the largest of large groupings of superclusters, and a brief discussion of the geometries and nature of space and time. The expansion of the universe, and possible futures (infinite expansion or ultimate collapse, or somewhere in between?) are discussed, as well as paradoxes which might arise in a collapsing universe.
Photographic plates are shown throughout in colour, in black and white, in negative, and in grid-overlays. There is a wide variety, showing the variety of ways in which astronomical objects are examined. This is a fabulous book. Rush to get it.
What we have learned
Is like a handful of earth;
What we have yet to learn
Is like the whole world.