Book Review: Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaesler – review by Alan Gold

August 4, 2011 by Alan Gold
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According to tradition, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai in order to receive the Ten Commandments, and stood before the firmament, where he witnessed the full panoply of stars, planets, asteroids and perhaps the occasional meteor illuminating the night sky with its blazing trail. And one can imagine Moses, alone and overwhelmed by the sight before him, staring upwards into that infinity which is the night sky, and believing that he was looking at the totality of the Universe.

Bryan Gaensler with NSW Governor Marie Bashir

Well, not quite. Indeed, not by a long way. What he really needed was astronomer Bryan Gaensler standing on the mountaintop beside him, naming all the stars and defining the constellations which so inspired the later Greeks and Romans. And then Bryan could have explained to the bedazzled Moses that all he was looking at were the stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and that this was merely one of billions of other galaxies, billions of light years in the distance and in the past.

Bryan’s book, Extreme Cosmos, enables us to accompany him on a journey through time and space, gently leading those of us without his depth of knowledge through the incredible, preposterous and fantastical world of speeds, distances, weights, light, temperature, and other measurements which scientists now understand  make up our Universe. But Extreme Cosmos isn’t a book of numbers and measurements, of scientific formulae and complex theories; it’s a simply written explanation of the most complicated thing we can barely comprehend, yet narrated for the inquisitive lay reader like some adventure story. Extreme Cosmos is a book designed to give a human perspective to the universe in which we live.

And make no mistake, because the Universe is an amazing place, full of things which simply don’t make any sense to minds born of earth and raised within the strictures of our physical laws. But it’s not just the physical environment which Bryan shows is being pushed to the limits of our understanding. So is our ability to accept what Bryan and his colleagues in the world of astronomy are discovering every day as the instruments they use enable them to see further, measure more accurately and ultimately begin to understand the worlds around us.

If only Galileo had had such instruments available to him instead of his rudimentary telescope. Surely he’d have understood that what he’d seen wasn’t the ultimate in hidden knowledge when he witnessed the craters of the Moon, or the rings of the planet Saturn, but a fraction of the amazing worlds beyond our sight.

When dealing with the facts and figures Bryan presents to us as our universe, when he shows us the events, numbers, times and temperatures which are the currency of astronomers, one is treading that narrow line between the robustly measureable world of science, and the ethereal and fragile world of philosophical enquiry. Reading Extreme Cosmos leads us to ask not just how, but why.

Journeying into the most distant regions of space, whose light is reaching us after travelling through space for billions of years (meaning that we’re seeing things which are billions of years old, and so quite possibly no longer in existence), we meet the strangest things, like tiny pulsar stars which spin at 700 times a second, unimaginable temperatures which make our own Sun seem like an ice planet, and other oddly-shaped galaxies full of billions of stars, which are in the process of swallowing other equally large galaxies in a dance of cosmic cannibalism …the intergalactic activity list is endless, and endlessly fascinating.

This is Bryan Gaensler’s first (published) book, written as one of the handful of scientists with the wit and wisdom to use his knowledge and training to explain his subject simply and succinctly to an audience thirsting for knowledge. As a Sydney schoolboy, he was fascinated with astronomy, and even wrote a textbook on the subject for his school library when he was in third grade. Since then, he has won awards for his subject, and is internationally recognized for his discoveries on dying stars, interstellar magnets and cosmic explosions. He is a former Young Australian of the Year, NASA Hubble Fellow and Harvard professor. Today, he is an Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Sydney and Director of the Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics.

For both Bryan and his beloved field of astronomy, the sky is the limit.


224pp RRP $29.95

ISBN 9781742231112

To be published in September 2011

New South Books


2 Responses to “Book Review: Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaesler – review by Alan Gold”
  1. I think Jenteel is lacking in depth and understanding of the subject I believe the analyses was excellent and gave us a great understanding of what the book was all about and gave us the choice of choosing to read it. Frankly, it could be far to intelligent for Jenteel, but there are many other books I am sure she can find more suited to her limited tastes. Sorry I don’t have a gravatar I find most articles I receive on JWire extremely informative and read them or those that interest me with appreciation to the sender.

  2. Jenteel says:

    What a silly introduction to a long and turgid book review Mr Gold. I hope the book is a much better read that your pathetic attempt at analysis.

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