Book Reviews


"Roadmap to the Next Frontier"

[Islands in the Sky book cover]Islands in the Sky: Bold New Ideas for Colonizing Space
Edited by Stanley Schmidt and Robert Zubrin
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (800/225-5945), March 1996
266 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-471-13561-5
US$14.95/C$20.95 softcover

Islands in the Sky is a collection of essays that have appeared in issues of the magazine Analog in recent years. The list of authors reads like a Who's Who of experts on cutting-edge ideas for space development: G. Harry Stine, Martyn Fogg, Robert Forward, and Robert Zubrin, among others. While some of the ideas discussed in this collection will be familiar to many readers, there is no doubt that all of the ideas expressed are bold.

The book is divided into several sections. The first, "Breaking the Bonds of Earth" deals with the problem of getting off the Earth and at least into low Earth orbit. The second, "Stepping into the Solar System," includes essays on exploring and settling the solar system from Mercury to the Oort Cloud. A third section, "Creating New Worlds," delves into the topic of terraforming and "astrophysical engineering" (a phrase defined by Fogg to mean techniques that would lengthen the lifetime of the Sun or otherwise keep the Earth habitable as the Sun reaches the end of its lifespan). A final section, "Advanced Drives and Interstellar Travel," looks at the prospects of traveling among the stars.

One could argue that precious little space in the book is devoted to the biggest current concern in space exploration: cheap access to space. Only two of the fifteen essays in the book are from the first section. It seems pointless to contemplate ways to utilize the mineral resources of Mercury or terraform Mars if the cost to place a kilogram into orbit is still exorbitant. To the book's defense, though, the essayists take a broad, long-range view of the future of space development, and can get by with assuming that current efforts to lower launch costs have succeeded long before more grandiose ventures are contemplated.

While regular readers of Analog will find little, if any, new material in this book, Islands in the Sky still serves an important purpose by bundling some of the most interesting and provocative concepts for human exploration and colonization of space into a single volume. It should provide great material for anyone looking for new ways to break our bonds with Mother Earth.

A Different Stairway to Heaven

[Image of book cover]Stairway to the Stars: The Story of the World's Largest Observatory
by Barry Parker
Plenum Press, 1994
350 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-306-44763-0
US$27.95 hardcover

With the dedication last month of the second 10-meter Keck telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which just thirty years ago was just beginning to be considered as a site for an observatory, secured its place as the world's leading center for astronomical observations, a position that will be further supported in the near future with the construction of the Gemini and Subaru 8-meter telescopes. How did Mauna Kea rise to such prominence in the astronomical community so quickly? Barry Parker answers that question and provides a detailed look at Mauna Kea in his book Stairway to the Stars.

The first portion of the book looks at the history of astronomical research in Hawaii in general, and on Mauna Kea in particular. The mountain, a dormant volcano that is the tallest mountain in the Pacific, was not originally considered a site for astronomical observations due to the inaccessibility of the summit. Observations in the 1950s and 60s were performed on Haleakala, a mountain on the neighboring island of Maui. However, problems with clouds on the smaller mountain made nighttime observations less than ideal (although the mountain then, as now, made for an excellent site for a solar observatory.)

At the same time astronomers were looking for an alternative site to replace Haleakala, a letter from Mitsuo Akiyama, the executive secretary of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, arrived, suggesting Mauna Kea as a possible site for an astronomical observatory. Akiyama knew little about astronomy, and his concern was with attracting development to the island to improve an economy literally battered by a tsunami in 1960. The timing was fortuitous, and soon a test observatory was set up on the mountain to study the seeing conditions on the mountain, the first a series of telescopes that would grow larger over time.

The history alone is worth the price of the book. Parker adds to the value of the book with a detailed report of his visits to the mountain which (based on my personal experience as an astronomer who has spent a number of nights on various telescopes on the mountain) is quite accurate. A third section to the book goes into some of the problems in astronomy -- from the age of the universe to the origin of the solar system -- which are being answered using observations from observatories on Mauna Kea.

Although the book is a couple years old, there have been few changes that could date the book. For anyone who has read or heard about the Keck telescopes and wanted to know about them, and their site, Stairway to the Stars is the best book available.

In Brief

[Image of book cover]Scientific American Focus: Cosmic Collisions
by Dana Desonie
Henry Holt and Company, March 1996
128 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-8050-3843-4
US$22.50/C$31.50 hardcover

Another book about the threat of asteroid collisions? It would seem like we have enough of these books already. Cosmic Collisions differentiates itself from the pack of books by providing a simple, easy-to-understand introduction to asteroids and comets and the threat they pose to Earth for the layman.

The book makes heavy use of pictures and diagrams to describe the impact record of the Earth, the probabilities for future impacts and the resulting damage, and what we can do to prevent an impact. The book stays away from detailed technical descriptions or mathematical formulas. While likely to be below the level of a typical SpaceViews reader, Cosmic Collisions would make an excellent primer on the subject for someone unfamiliar with the hazards of asteroid and comet impacts.

[Image of book cover]The Physics of Star Trek
by Lawrence M. Krauss
BasicBooks, 1995
188 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-465-00559-4
US$18.50/C$26.00, hardcover

What does Star Trek have to do with space? Besides inspiring viewers to learn more about the real space program (when they're not trapped in the fantasy world of the Federation and Starfleet), it's introduced a number of physical concepts like the warp drive and transporters. Are these ideas merely convenient constructs of the writers, or is there some basic in real physics for these items? Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor at Case Western Reserve University, examines these questions in The Physics of Star Trek.

In a concise book laced with all sorts of references to Star Trek television series and movies (perhaps too many for the casual Trek fan to be able to catch all of them), Krauss looks for parallels between the physics and technology of today and that which is presented on the shows. While there are often enormous logical gaps in the physics of the Star Trek universe, there are a surprising number of parallels with the physics of the "real" universe. Read it to be entertained and informed about physics and Star Trek. Just don't expect the solution to warp drives and transporters to be found in the pages of the book!

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