A Grand and Bold Thing

by Ann Finkbeiner

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Publisher: Free Press
Copyright: August 2010
ISBN: 1-4391-9647-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 200

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With the (somewhat excessively long) subtitle of An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In a New Era of Discovery, this is a history of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's structured as a mostly chronological history of the project with background profiles on key project members, particularly James Gunn.

Those who follow my blog will know that I recently started a new job at Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope). Our goal is to take a complete survey of the night sky several times a week for ten years. That project is the direct successor of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and its project team includes many people who formerly worked on Sloan. This book (and another one, Giant Telescopes) was recommended to me as a way to come up to speed on the history of this branch of astronomy.

Before reading this book, I hadn't understood how deeply the ready availability of the Sloan sky survey data had changed astronomy. Prior to the availability of that survey data, astronomers would develop theories and then try to book telescope time to make observations to test those theories. That telescope time was precious and in high demand, so was not readily available, and was vulnerable to poor weather conditions (like overcast skies) once the allocated time finally arrived.

The Sloan project changed all of that. Its output was a comprehensive sky survey available digitally whenever and wherever an astronomer needed it. One could develop a theory and then search the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for relevant data and, for at least some types of theories, test that theory against the data without needing precious telescope time or new observations. It was a transformational change in astronomy, made possible by the radical decision, early in the project, to release all of the data instead of keeping it private to a specific research project.

The shape of that change is one takeaway from this book. The other is how many problems the project ran into trying to achieve that goal. About a third of the way into this book, I started wondering if the project was cursed. So many things went wrong, from institutional politics through equipment failures to software bugs and manufacturing problems with the telescope mirror. That makes it all the more impressive how much impact the project eventually had. It's also remarkable just how many bad things can happen to a telescope mirror without making the telescope unusable.

Finkbeiner provides the most relevant astronomical background as she tells the story so that the unfamiliar reader can get an idea of what questions the Sloan survey originally set out to answer (particularly about quasars), but this is more of a project history than a popular astronomy book. There's enough astronomy here for context, but not enough to satisfy curiosity. If you're like me, expect to have your curiosity piqued, possibly resulting in buying popular surveys of current astronomy research. (At least one review is coming soon.)

Obviously this book is of special interest to me because of my new field of work, my background at a research university, and because it features some of my co-workers. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to someone without that background and personal connection. But if you've ever been adjacent to or curious about how large-scale science projects are done, this is a fascinating story. Both the failures and problems and the way they were eventually solved is different than how the more common stories of successful or failed companies are told. (It helps, at least for me, that the shared goal was to do science, rather than to make money for a corporation whose fortunes are loosely connected to those of the people doing the work.)

Recommended if this topic sounds at all interesting.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-03-31

Last modified and spun 2020-04-05