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"Every cultural tradition has its nocturnal vigils, its dark nights of the soul. Poetry without darkness is not poetry at all.... The dark night is one of nature's most precious gifts, a rare and valuable cloth embroidered with the history of our race, which, to our detriment, we fritter away."
So declares Chet Raymo in An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, a book rich with poetic, heavens-inspired prose and clear, down-to-Earth presentations of the science behind nature's ever-changing night-time spectacle.
"[W]hat kind of intimacy can one have with a universe of 100 billion galaxies, each galaxy containing one trillion stars, every star perhaps with planets?" he asks and then offers two answers, one personal and one universal. On the personal level, "bring to mind the Big Bang, the out-rushing snowstorm of galaxies, the seething stars, the whirling planets, everything revealed by the telescopes... We carry a universe in our heads." How we came to know that universe "is a human story; a story of human curiosity, human ingenuity, human courage."
Arranged in four sections of three chapters each, corresponding to the seasons and months of the year, the book opens with a compelling sensory experience. The readers, eyes closed, journey to one of the rare spots on Earth where the darkness is still pristine. In the background is the music of Haydn's oratorio The Creation with its words of Genesis read by angels. The chorus whispers, "And there was light," and a fortissimo C-major chord announces it is time to behold the January sky. "Stars. Planets. The luminous river of the Milky Way. As you open your eyes..., you will feel that you have been witness to the big bang."
Each chapter illuminates a different scientific realm and ends with two star maps for the month and extended captions describing "What to See" and "What to Imagine." Readers discover the depth of darkness; the vastness of the galaxy-spangled cosmos; the source of stellar energy; the bits and pieces we call planets, moons, asteroids, and comets; the incredible fortune of living on such a rare planet, and the realization that other planets probably exist endowed even more richly with energy, resources, life -- even intelligence.
Having opened with the alpha of the Beginning, Mr. Raymo closes with the omega of the Universe's end -- and a revelation. "Science at its best -- as practiced by a Galileo, a Herschel, an Einstein, or a Hubble -- is an almost religious activity; a deliberate effort to engage intellectually, passionately with the mystery that permeates every particle of existence, every glimmer of light in the night sky." No reviewer could write a sentence that better describes the scientific yet spiritual experience of An Intimate Look at the Night Sky.