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FIRST LIGHT The Search for the Edge of the Universe by Richard Preston (A Plume Book / New American Library: $8.95)

January 15, 1989|ELENA BRUNET

Winner of a Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics, "First Light" is a captivating, almost awe-inspiring story about a team of astronomers operating at the Hale Telescope, at Palomar Observatory, Caltech.

Preston describes the work and lives of astronomers Maarten Schmidt, Jim Gunn and Don Schneider, as well as engineers and programmers on the team.

Preston explains, in fascinating and accessible prose, the team's "search for the edge of the known universe," as defined by a rare type of quasar. "Quasars were points of light that glittered in the depths of the universe," Preston writes. "(They) once shone (are seen shining) long before the sun, the Earth, and perhaps even the Milky Way came into being, when the universe was young. . . ."

In an enlightening explanation of the astronomers' search, Preston writes, "Seeing outward is equivalent to looking backward in time, because the telescope's mirror is capturing primeval light . . . galaxies that existed before our time."

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