The book next door

Today I went out for a haircut and came back with a book. I got the haircut ok, but walking back I stumbled across Bells Books, one of those lovely musty second hand bookstores. I emerged with A Sourcebook in Astronomy 1900-1950, in which Harlow Shapley collected original articles by all the right people – Ed Hubble, Annie Cannon, Tommy Gold, Albert Einstein, Abbe Lemaitre and many others, as well as many others you won’t have heard of. I guess I was in the mood for the history of astronomy. My teacher and good colleague Mary Bruck died in December, and I just finished her excellent book on Mary Agnes Clerke.

Carrying my lucky find, I remembered a discussion I had in the Kings Buildings branch of Blackwells last year. The shop had big piles of Course Textbooks but very little else. The guy on the till explained how Amazon was killing real bookshops – why walk to the store, not knowing if they will have the book you want, when you know you can order it from your living room ? We’re not talking about the latest Dan Brown. We are talking about unnusual books, just the right book. The giant warehouse wins when you are hunting in the long tail. But we miss those magical hours  wandering the bookshelves, browsing. Wandering the shelves is more than just entertaining; it maximises serendipity. As the man in Blackwells said to me, three times out of four, the book we buy is the one next door to the one we came in to look for.

Scientific progress can be like this too. You are hunting for one thing and find another. There are several famous examples in modern astronomy. One is the building of the Jodrell Bank telescope to look for meteor showers, only to find persistent radio sources, which would turn to be the most powerful objects in the Universe. Another is Giacconi’s rocket shot of 1962, funded to look for solar X-rays reflected from the moon; instead it found Sco X-1 and the X-ray background. I have heard some X-ray astronomy old timers say that Giacconi always wanted to find something new and unexpected; the lunar fluorescence thing was just a funding excuse. It took another twenty eight years before X-ray astronomers really did detect the Moon. X-ray image of the Moon (ROSAT, June 1990)

Here is the picture, taken by ROSAT in June 1990. This is such a cool picture. Not only can you see the sunlit side of the Moon, but the other half is dark, because it blocks the cosmic background.  You can just see that the sky shines in X-rays coming from behind the Moon.

Sometimes the Snark is a Boojum after all. Decades of struggling to measure the expected deceleration of the universe, which would tell us its mean density, and finally the supernovae show us something entirely new – dark energy – and the universe becomes a more mysterious place.

I wonder what unexpected corner we will turn down next ?

6 Responses to The book next door

  1. onewithbooks says:

    I am with you. I love wandering around musty, secondhand bookshops. It is relaxing and I find gems I would have never bumped across at the huge bookstores or on Amazon. Great post!

  2. Mike Merrifield says:

    Interesting post, Andy. One analogy I might draw, which you probably won’t like, is that I fear that if we are not careful then big surveys and the virtual observatory ethos will lead to the “Amazonization” of astronomy — you will type in your detailed SQL enquiry or pull down exactly the right menus to get just the data product that you thought you wanted, and completely miss the much more interesting discovery sitting right next to it on the metaphorical shelf.

  3. MikeW says:

    Mike, I think you are wrong. Well crafted queries with good quality data will indeed produce what you describe (and I would say this is progress indeed – getting what you want efficiently and easily). Typical queries to large surveys (with or without the VO) are much more experimental in nature and produce arguably greater scope for serendipitous discoveries (provided brain is still engaged when evaluating the results). One can even use the new technology to pose totally off-the-wall queries just to see what happens. Do this with Amazon and the results are unlikely to be interesting, but do this with a database of 100 billion objects and a true discovery is at least on the cards.

  4. andyxl says:

    Mike M – I agree with Mike W here, and have probably been unfair to Amazon. Their “people who bought this also looked at …” feature actually does quite a good job of encouraging serendipity. Likewise running Google searches usually turns up weird and interesting stuff. But somehow its not quite the same as being physically in the bookshop. Maybe its the temporary complete immersion that does the trick ? W.r.t. the Virtual Observatory, I recommend you play with VODesktop. Its about hunting for and bookmarking resources rather precisely crafted SQL. When I use it I usually discover catalogues I didn’t know about.

  5. Mike Merrifield says:

    I have played around with VODesktop (Nic Walton can be very persuasive!), but I am afraid that my experience was the opposite: I found that it channeled me toward the things that it (or rather its creators) thought were important. Fundamentally, though, I am just not the database-trawling type, so probably wasn’t the right person to give the software a fair work-out.

    I still think there is an analogy, though: Amazon, even through things like its “People also looked at” feature, gives you higher-level products, which clearly has benefits in terms of getting you more quickly to a final answer of buying a book, but corresponding costs in serendipity. Similarly, a search correlating the X-ray and optical properties of early-type barred spiral galaxies may get you a quick publication, but you won’t spot the large asteroid on a collision course with Earth that happens to be passing NGC936 unless you take the time to browse the images over a tall latte.

  6. Speaking as a real astronomer 😉 one particularly exciting moment in my life was in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton in the mid-1970s when I stumbled across an early edition of the Rev T W Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, complete with fold-out Moon map. It cost 50p as I recall and I remember physically shaking as I paid for my purchase in case they discovered there had been a mistake in the pricing.
    Another pleasure recently, thanks to the internet, has been finding a wealth of out-of-copyright texts at the Gutenberg Press or

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: