The Interstellar Age

Since my first encounter with Star Trek in the early seventies, Astronomy, Planetary Science and Astrophysics were all academic careers that I secretly coveted. Wouldn’t it be amazing to slowly but methodically entangle the secrets of the universe with a bunch of like minded people or continuously improve the technology needed to assess the necessary data. In other words, become a boffin.

It unfortunately turned out that I was far too lazy to put the work in to become adequate at either physics or math, so by the time I was ready for university I knew that this was not a realistic career to pursue. Today I know that it that it takes ages to get through grad school, that it is pretty tricky to become a PhD student in the necessary field and that you get paid peanuts as a post-doc (if you can get a job at all). So, probably the right decision to rather watch sci-fi and read about space exploration than actually be involved with it. I rather pay my yearly dues to the Planetary Society, listen to the right podcasts and marvel at the work the boffins crank out.

With the remaining members of Voyager 1&2’s science and engineering team celebrating 40 years since the two probes blasted off, the New York Times featured this event quite prominently in its science section, with a particularly lovely article about the remaining engineers by Kim Tingley. I have been following the fate of the two probes for decades as well (the advent of the internet has helped) and thought recently it would be nice to get a nice roundup of their history, so I bought Jim Bell’s book ‘The Interstellar Age’ . Bell is an accomplished academic and heads his own department at Arizona State University (and is the president of The Planetary Society), so you’d think he’d make a top notch author for a book on the Voyagers.

Well, unfortunately, he isn’t. I have no idea why, but rather than focusing on the scientific wonders and engineering issues that such a project discovers, he uses the book to frame his own personal academic career within the timeline of the two probes. Hell, it takes him 41 pages to begin the actual story. Interspersed with the history and some of the findings of the probes there are semi-funny anecdotes of him being a helpful grad-student, but then he omits the story around Voyager1’s faulty radio receiver before the Jupiter flyby. He also spends far too long on the design of the golden records.

I got increasingly frustrated by this book. While without question a nice chap, I really wasn’t particularly interested in Bell’s career, even if it touched Voyager from time to time. I’ll now have to hunt for somebody else’s account of those two technological marvels.

Recommendations welcome.

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