First Light

Widely regarded as a cult classic among books about science, First Light is a true story that tells of the men and women astronomers at the Palomar Observatory in the mountains of southern California, who peer through telescopes into the deepest reaches of the universe, attempting to solve riddles from the beginning of time. “Science is a lot weirder and more human than most people realize,” Preston writes, and he brilliantly weaves together the lives of his characters and the technical wonders of their work to create a riveting narrative about who scientists are and what science is really all about.

The centerpiece of the story is the monstrous Hale Telescope, built in the 1930s – a huge battleship of a telescope, seven stories tall, with a mirror that is two hundred inches wide and took fourteen years to cast and polish by hand. No one understands exactly how the Hale Telescopes works – its designers are dead, and the parts are fifty years old. The telescope is used by astronomers like the remarkable James E. Gunn, a “gadgeteer” who scavenges for junk parts and fashions them into instruments he uses to look into the glittering depths of the universe. Preston’s rendering of the obsessions and adventures of Jim Gunn and his colleagues is a witty and beautiful portrait of scientists in action, and a luminous story about one of the deepest quests in human knowledge.

First Light won the American Institute of Physics award in science writing. An asteroid has been named “Preston” in honor of First Light. Preston is a lump of rock the size of lower Manhattan. It is likely someday to collide with Mars or the Earth.

“This is Preston’s best book, and it is the best book ever written about astronomers and the things they do. The science is accurate, the portraits of the human characters are true to life, and the story whizzes along like a ride on a roller coaster.
–Freeman Dyson

“In this extraordinary account, Preston has spun a tale of science as a very human endeavor . . . . First Light should be required reading for students, teachers, and anybody else who wants to know how science is really done.”
Sky & Telescope

First Light is a reviewer’s nightmare: you want to quote the whole thing. . . . Richard Preston has deep pockets, and they are filled with literary black arts.”
The Hampshire Gazette

“First Light beautifully depicts astronomers’ deepened understanding of earth as the merest speck in time and space.”
The New York Times Book Review

EXCERPT

There was a lull while the astronomers stared at the screen in silence. Juan Carrasco pulled one of several notebooks from his box of marinated jalapenos and made some notes in it. He felt that the only way to begin to guess what was going on inside the Big Eye was to keep track of its vital signs. He felt that the big Eye had its good nights and its bad nights. On the first day that he had reported to work on Palomar Mountain, he had written on the cover of an empty green notebook: “Love and Ambition are the wings to success. 1969.”

He had been afraid that he would fail—that he would crash the telescope. His old fear still touched him once in a while. He tried not to think too hard about the glass giant, moving out there in the darkness. The green notebook showed signs of much use. He had had to repair it with packing tape, Palomar glue.

Other notebooks had followed the green notebook. While at first he had stuck to critical information (“astronomers’ favorite radio station: KFAC 92.3 on the dial”), he had also wondered: “What happened at the moment of creation? How did the stars and galaxies come into being? How will the universe end?”—jotting questions for Jim Gunn, hoping that Gunn could answer them. Gunn, however, had been working fiendishly for most of his life to answer these very same questions, without ever attaining satisfactory answers, because (Juan noted) “What we have here is a fundamental problem.”

On a shelf within easy reach, Juan placed a tattered dictionary, and when he heard a savory word, he looked it up to get the nuances. Some of the astronomers seemed to forget that the night assistant was taking notes. When they spoke of their fellow astronomers, he recorded what he had heard:

Goon—a man hired to terrorize or intimidate opponents
Yokel—a rude, naïve, or gullible inhabitant of a rural area or small town
Jargon—unintelligible language or words
Grandiose Conclusion

When the astronomers saw something spectacular on the video screens, he made a note of it for posterity: “Supernova!!!”

He also kept a set of official chronicles in a gigantic red-and-black book of medieval appearance, known as the Observatory Log: “Scattered cirrus, moderate NW wind. Dr. Richard Preston (journalist) 30 yrs. Old.

The box of marinated jalapenos accumulated emergency gear: seven Duracells and two extra flashlight bulbs. Two rolls of tape and some string, which he would lend to astronomers. One fever thermometer (the astronomers were careless about their health, and it was sometimes necessary to take their temperature). One bottle of Campho-Phenique (“Very good for fever blisters,” he said). The marinated jalapenos box also held numerous Polaroid snapshots of beautiful objects: a ring nebula in Cygnus; a pair of nameless interacting galaxies; a comet named 1983d, which will not be seen again by human eyes until the early summer of A.D. 3027. The box held a religious booklet, bearing a message from John Greenleaf Whittier to humanity: “Nothing before, nothing behind: The steps of Faith fall on the seeming void and find the rock beneath.”

Juan went downstairs to gather a midnight snack in the dome’s kitchen. He returned with a tray of steaming coffee mugs and cans of soda pop and plates holding toasted English muffin sandwiches packed with a yellow mucoid that the astronomers referred to as plastic cheese.

“Doctor Schmidt,” Juan said.

“Thank you, Juan.” Maarten took an English muffin and a mug of coffee and stood up. He said, “Some part of my record player at home needs to be repaired. I am looking forward tonight to some loud, flawless music,” and headed for the stereo. Fragments of rock music drifted through the data room as he scanned the dial, until The Goldberg Variations came up softly.

“Doctor Schneider,” Juan said.

Don took a can of Von’s Lemon-Lime soda and an English muffin with cheese. He did not touch coffee or alcohol, but his consumption of plastic cheese positively alarmed the cooks at the Monastery.

“Professor James E. Gunn,” Juan said.

“Thank you, Juanito,” Gunn accepted a can of Von’s and spritzed it without removing his eyes from the endless sarabande of the galaxies. He took a long swig while groping through a pile of papers until he had located his personal jumbo value-pack of M&Ms, out of which he pulled a handful of chasers to the soda.

Juan sat down at his own television screen with a cup of coffee. He sipped it thoughtfully, looking into the universe.

Don leaned back in his chair with a huge grin on his face. “Well, what do you think of this, Juan? Is this any way to do astronomy?”

Juan took a moment to consider the question while he sipped his coffee. “Yes,” he said.

“All of us standing and gaping,” said Maarten. He pumped up the volume on the stereo, and The Goldberg Variations filled the data room, Maarten Scmidt conducting with a coffee mug. “Fantastic,” Maarten said. “Fantastic! It’s a Big Eye, by golly! Who cares about our own eyes when we’ve got a Big Eye!”


Excerpted from First Light by Richard Preston. Copyright 2002 by Richard Preston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.