Sunday, May 25, 2008

Robert Zimmerman's "The Universe in a Mirror"

Robert Zimmerman is an award-winning science writer and historian whose work has appeared in Natural History, the Wall Street Journal, and Astronomy, among other leading publications. His books include Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel and Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It, and reported the following:
I approached the 99-page test with great skepticism, a skepticism that was in many ways confirmed when I looked at page 99 of The Universe in a Mirror. The book tells the epic and sometimes heart-breaking tale of the Hubble Space Telescope and the men and women who risked their careers and family lives to build and fix what has undoubtedly been the most successful and important scientific instrument ever put into space. Not only has Hubble reshaped the field of astronomy, it has completely changed the human perception of the universe.

The events described on page 99, the change from one project manager to another early in Hubble's construction and the problems that change caused, seems at first glance to be relatively unexciting. As with all history, the context that surrounds such an event is what will give the event its life and energy. Thus, reading this single page, out of context, leaves the reader somewhat high and dry, lacking the background necessary to understand the human difficulties of the situation.

Page 99 does contain a single phrase, however, that does encapsulate the context of the situation and helps explain the many problems that plagued the entire history of the Hubble Space Telescope. That phrase is "penny wise and pound foolish."

Repeatedly in Hubble's history the telescope was crippled by foolish attempts by numerous individuals to try to save a few dollars by either reducing the scope of the telescope or simply not doing the work necessary to make sure the telescope was built correctly. For example, in 1972 NASA's administrator arbitrarily limited the telescope's budget to approximately $300 million, a number picked out of the air with no connection to actual cost, in order to please the budget counters in Congress. It was this artificial number that ultimately caused the difficulties in construction, contributing more than anything to the error that eventually left the telescope's mirror deformed.

Similarly, in 2004 the last shuttle servicing mission to Hubble was cancelled for many of the same "penny-wise" reasons, requiring a political battle and the eventual resignation of the man who made that decision in order to reinstate the mission, now scheduled for the fall of 2008.

To me, writing good history means writing the story of ordinary human beings struggling to make difficult decisions with limited knowledge. The consequences of those decisions is what determines the history, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. In the case of the Hubble Space Telescope, the telescope's intrinsic potential for unveiling the unknown repeatedly forced the right decisions on everyone involved, and the result has been images of the heavens that are often so beautiful and revealing that it is difficult for words to describe them.
Read an excerpt from The Universe in a Mirror, and learn more about the book and author at the Princeton University Press website and Robert Zimmerman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue