Review: A Grand and Bold Thing, by Ann Finkbeiner

Russ Allbery eagle at
Tue Mar 31 20:44:46 PDT 2020

A Grand and Bold Thing
by Ann Finkbeiner

Publisher: Free Press
Copyright: August 2010
ISBN:      1-4391-9647-8
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     200

With the (somewhat excessively long) subtitle of An Extraordinary New
Map of the Universe Ushering In a New Era of Discovery, this is a
history of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's structured as a mostly
chronological history of the project with background profiles on key
project members, particularly James Gunn.

Those who follow my blog will know that I recently started a new job at
Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey
Telescope). Our goal is to take a complete survey of the night sky
several times a week for ten years. That project is the direct
successor of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and it's project team
includes many people who formerly worked on Sloan. This book (and
another one, Giant Telescopes) was recommended to me as a way to come
up to speed on the history of this branch of astronomy.

Before reading this book, I hadn't understood how deeply the ready
availability of the Sloan sky survey data had changed astronomy. Prior
to the availability of that survey data, astronomers would develop
theories and then try to book telescope time to make observations to
test those theories. That telescope time was precious and in high
demand, so was not readily available, and was vulnerable to poor
weather conditions (like overcast skies) once the allocated time
finally arrived.

The Sloan project changed all of that. Its output was a comprehensive
sky survey available digitally whenever and wherever an astronomer
needed it. One could develop a theory and then search the Sloan Digital
Sky Survey for relevant data and, for at least some types of theories,
test that theory against the data without needing precious telescope
time or new observations. It was a transformational change in
astronomy, made possible by the radical decision, early in the project,
to release all of the data instead of keeping it private to a specific
research project.

The shape of that change is one takeaway from this book. The other is
how many problems the project ran into trying to achieve that goal.
About a third of the way into this book, I started wondering if the
project was cursed. So many things went wrong, from institutional
politics through equipment failures to software bugs and manufacturing
problems with the telescope mirror. That makes it all the more
impressive how much impact the project eventually had. It's also
remarkable just how many bad things can happen to a telescope mirror
without making the telescope unusable.

Finkbeiner provides the most relevant astronomical background as she
tells the story so that the unfamiliar reader can get an idea of what
questions the Sloan survey originally set out to answer (particularly
about quasars), but this is more of a project history than a popular
astronomy book. There's enough astronomy here for context, but not
enough to satisfy curiosity. If you're like me, expect to have your
curiosity piqued, possibly resulting in buying popular surveys of
current astronomy research. (At least one review is coming soon.)

Obviously this book is of special interest to me because of my new
field of work, my background at a research university, and because it
features some of my co-workers. I'm not sure how interesting it will be
to someone without that background and personal connection. But if
you've ever been adjacent to or curious about how large-scale science
projects are done, this is a fascinating story. Both the failures and
problems and the way they were eventually solved is different than how
the more common stories of successful or failed companies are told. (It
helps, at least for me, that the shared goal was to do science, rather
than to make money for a corporation whose fortunes are loosely
connected to those of the people doing the work.)

Recommended if this is topic sounds at all interesting.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-03-31


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list