A Book Review of Seeing and Believing by Richard Panek
Reviewed by Abigail Hughes
Seeing and Believing. Pages 198. New York, Viking., 1998. ISBN0-670-87628-3. Available at the observatory library.
For this review, I started by reading another book titled Entering Space, which turned out to be too technical and detailed for me to complete in time. As a result, I ended up reading this delightful book, chosen mainly on its apparent size. Being a small book, less than 200 pages, I expected little in the way of detail and depth (in part due to my experience in reading another small book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry). In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the content retained in the modestly sized book.
The prologue of the book is about the Hubble Deep Field image which was only two years old at the time of publication. The poetic brilliance of introducing the book with what can be considered the greatest feat of observational astronomy and telescopic power became clear once I had read through the majority of the book and reflected back on the first couple of pages. Despite the fact that I was reading the book 20 years after publication, 22 years after the Hubble Deep Field was compiled, the majesty and wonder of the image still resonates to this day. Even with the James Webb telescope currently in line to take over the throne as the most powerful telescope, I still have a deep appreciation and respect for what the Hubble Telescope has accomplished. Arguably, being alive to see the development and hopefully, the successful launch of the James Webb telescope has engrained a better appreciation and understanding of the events which take place in the book.
Divided into three parts: Seeing, Believing, and Beyond Belief, the book focuses on the history of astronomy as told through the invention and use of the telescope as well as the social, moral, and religious upheavals that resulted. A unique perspective which narrows down the viewing area, bringing in focus a sharper image of the subject’s history. I enjoyed the retelling of famous history through the new lens, bringing focus and depth to the development of the telescope. I know that I, for one, forget about how awe-inspiring the current technology truly is. I often forget to put into perspective how astronomers such as Galileo, Gassendi, Kepler, were able to make ground-breaking observations with telescopes that were worse than terrible by today’s standards. The fact that the cheapest telescope available today is still better than the best telescope made by Galileo. That up until 1656, after Huygens refined the pendulum weight used for timekeeping, there was no set coordinate system for the night sky and that locations of objects had to be approximated based off of the "fixed stars". How incredible it must have been when Uranus was first observed, a discovery that shook human knowledge of planets, a fact which had gone basically unaltered for thousands of years (with the exception of the Sun and the Moon which were recategorized).
From today’s perspective, it can be hard to understand that there was a time when knowledge limited the universe to our galaxy, or even to just our solar system. The fact that there was a time where other star systems seemed absurd and contradicted the accepted view of the universe. It is for these reasons that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Seeing and Believing. It is not enough for an author to just present facts, it is the art of presenting common facts in a new light which can then resonate with the reader which makes a book worth reading. I stand by that this book is proof of the validity of the old idiom: good things come in small packages. I would highly recommend this book to all astronomers, especially observational so that they can better appreciate the time in which we live and the technology at their disposal.
To all the readers,
All though I am far from short of reading materials to cover for the monthly reviews, some help in narrowing down the selection would be appreciated. I would love to receive feedback regarding what books or specific topics you would like to see reviewed. Club members are also welcomed to write their own reviews and submit them for publication in Orbit and on the club’s website. All comments, questions, concerns, or submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.