Review: 'Distant Wanderers' scan heavens
An Earthly look at otherworldly investigation
"Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System"
(CNN) -- They are hunters on the trail of a fiendishly elusive prey. They have never seen it and only the most tediously careful observations can pick up its tracks. They're astronomers and they're looking for planets around other suns.
Their quest is the subject of "Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System" by science writer Bruce Dorminey. It's an engrossing account of the progress made and a look into the future of planet-hunting.
Along the way, he introduces the reader to the men and women who spend their nights in remote observatories, trying to catch the all-but-imperceptible signs that they're closing in on their quarry.
This is "Big Science." The instruments used to detect the telltale clues of an extra-solar planet's presence are mammoth and powerful. They have to be. Planets don't give themselves away easily, and they hide in the glare of stars. No one has ever seen one.
Dorminey leavens his account of the science and machinery of planet-hunting with personal touches – a gathering of astronomers sipping cappuccino on the island of Capri; the creature comforts (or lack of them) available at far-flung observatories; the sheer physical challenge of going to the places sufficiently distant from civilization to provide an unobstructed chance to look into the cosmos.
"By the time I hit the futuristic control room of Mauna Kea's Gemini North Observatory," he writes, "my head was spinning, but not because of any rapid-fire revelations I was having about the wonders of the Universe. It had to be the altitude . . . I took a sip from my water bottle and tried to stay alert, but that wasn't easy at more than 4,200 meters (almost 14,000 feet)."
Such personal observations provide a human perspective to what, at its core, is a hugely impersonal story.
"Distant Wanderers" surveys the waterfront of the sciences, from the mechanics of planet formation to the physics of the light waves emitted by distant stars and the biology of life. Dorminey touches on the wide variety of technologies being brought to bear on the search for extra-solar planets, both at ground-based observatories and in spacecraft.
The book is technical enough to make it clear how the scientists go about their daunting task but not so technical that it overwhelms the lay reader.
Through it all, Dorminey keeps his focus firmly on the big prize – the day when someone, somewhere first gazes upon the actual image of a planet circling another sun.
That day is coming, he assures us. The current generation of star hunters is blazing the trail to faraway worlds. They, or the students they're training right now, may be the ones to capture the elusive prey in its natural habitat.
Forming planets caught in the act
April 16, 2002
Mars soil gives hints of green planet
April 5, 2002
Big asteroid population doubles in new census
April 5, 2002
Bright new comet heading our way
March 29, 2002
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
ENTERTAINMENT TOP STORIES:
Kate Winslet defies expectations
MSNBC axes Phil Donahue
60,000 Romans honor comedy hero
Potter author to appear on 'Simpsons'
Review: Chronicling Jordan's 'Last Shot'
|Back to the top|