From the March 2006 issue

May 2006 book reviews

Discover this month's offerings of astronomy titles.
By | Published: March 24, 2006
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Theaters of Time and Space
Theaters of Time and Space
Jordan D. Marché II, 288 pages; Rutgers University Press, 2005; hardcover, $49.95

The planetarium has always been a special place for anyone interested in astronomy. For those who grew up during the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s, the local planetarium was often a focus of interest. My first trip in 1963 to our local planetarium was an amazing adventure. Under a 6-meter-diameter canvas dome sat the planetarium’s projector — an early Spitz model. I was already fascinated by astronomy, but as a 9-year-old, the beauty of the stars on that dome was overwhelming.

Jordan Marché’s book, Theaters of Time and Space, does an outstanding job of exploring the American planetarium from 1930 to 1970. His coverage of planetarium icons and the history of pioneering facilities like Adler (in Chicago), Fels (in Philadelphia), Griffith (in Los Angeles), and Hayden (in New York) is exemplary.

Black Bodies and Quantum Cats
Jennifer Ouellette, 320 pages; Penguin Books, 2005; paperback, $15
One of the best ways to explain an abstract concept is to relate it to the real world. Jennifer Ouellette uses this literary device throughout her book on the history of physics. She covers roughly 40 discoveries and inventions that have changed the world around us. Ouellette draws comparisons from books and mainstream movies (such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Back to the Future). From the discovery of the electromagnetic force, to the invention of Velcro, to an overview of Schrödinger’s infamous cat, Ouellette explains these concepts in a down-to-Earth way. — Liz Kruesi

Even though the book focuses mostly on American planetarium sites, Marché begins with an overview of the development of the planetarium projector itself. This is an excellent introduction to the book as well as a bridge to the establishment and development of the American planetarium scene. Marché leads readers through the Zeiss influence — the Carl Zeiss Company was the first to develop the “modern” planetarium, versus a projection system — and initial facilities. Marché then enters the Post World War II era, and the Sputnik — or Space Race — era.

The planetarium was at the forefront of special effects and mesmerized both children and adults. There was also special programming, whether it was a look at the night sky, an annual program about the Star of Bethlehem, or the controversial light-show phenomena of the 1970s (which, as Marché points out, began in the late 1950s as experimental programming at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium). This was a mixture of music (usually rock), flashing effects, strobes, and spinning star fields, which became a great source of revenue and helped fund other planetaria programs.

Looking for Life, Searching the Solar System
Paul Clancy, André Brack, and Gerda Horneck, 350 pages; Cambridge University Press, 2005; hardcover, $40
This is a comprehensive reference book on life in our solar system — whether life is confined to Earth and, if it’s not, whether we will find life similar to what exists on our planet? The authors are exobiology experts, and they cover a range of topics, from the exploration process to a discussion of the telltale signs of life. This book is jam-packed with information and is for anyone with a serious interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. — L. K.

I especially enjoyed Marché’s inclusion of the various personalities who shaped the American planetarium scene. His additional notes, references, and bibliography complete the description of the planetaria.

The audience for this book is anyone who enjoys the history of astronomy education and is interested in the trials that faced (and still face) planetarium directors.

As I am certain will be true for other readers, Theaters of Time and Space stepped me back to a time when my love of astronomy was sealed by a visit to a planetarium. This book also reminded me of the challenges I faced as a planetarium director. (I spent 3½ years directing the third generation of the same planetarium I visited as a child.) — Mike Reynolds is the Dean of Mathematics and Science at Florida Community College, and Executive Director Emeritus of the Chabot Space & Science Center.