..by Anura Guruge
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Given my now permanent state of impecuniosity I wasn’t in a position to give my son anything major (e.g., a Corvette) for his 21st birthday. The best I could do was a $0.99 cent book — and it isn’t even one of those ‘self-help’ books on how he should proceed forward. He seems to be doing quite well, working as an editorial intern for ‘New Hampshire Business Review’ right now. This was, however, a book he had asked for, though I am sure he thought that I would not oblige. Well, I did, and thanks to the detour I took to write the two Comet ISON books (not to mention all of the craziness of the papal transition) the timing kind of worked out quite well.
Well here is the book. Yes, it does have his name in the title (and as such the cover) and it is dedicated to him for his 21st birthday. So it wasn’t just a book I picked up in a yard sale. His words, in the Summer of 2011, when he saw “Devanee’s Book of Dwarf Planets” was: “I want a book too“. I was surprised. Devanee had asked for a book with her name, after I had done “Teischan’s ABC Book of Great Artists” but she was nine at the time. Matthew was 19. But, I took him seriously. I had been working on this since September 2011.
This is a big book, 76,500 words. It is quite technical too, and was the most difficult book I have written to date. I struggled with it, but at the same time it was rewarding. As they say this really was a character building experience for me. Astronomy has so, so many really, really neat concepts and laws such as orbital resonances, accretion, Kirkwood gaps, Olber’s paradox, Yarkovsky effect and Lagrangian points. The ‘Yarkovsky effect‘ alone is pretty amazing and demonstrates the absolute brilliance of some truly gifted individuals. This phenomenon has to do with the consequences of sunlight heating one side of a small, rotating solar system object during the day. This causes a heat differential between the opposite sides of the body, resulting in a small radiation pressure thrust. This thrust, though small, can over time cause small bodies such as asteroids and meteoroids to change their orbital path. Just amazing. But, my favorite is ‘Lagrangian points‘. We think of Jupiter, quite rightly, as having enormous gravitational pull. But, there are thousands (if not more) of small asteroids that glibly litter Jupiter’s orbital path with Jupiter powerless to brush them away! These pesky asteroids are in two huge clusters, one cluster always 60° ahead of Jupiter and the other 60° behind. These are Lagrangian points — areas where the gravity of any orbiting body, even one as big as Jupiter’s, is neutralized by other rotational forces. Brilliant. Really makes you sit back and marvel the cleverness of the folks that work out all these non-intuitive quirks of nature.
In this book I tackle all of these concepts and more. My forte is supposedly that of being able to explain technical things in ways that newcomers to the field can come to terms with them. That is what I set to do. It was easier with computer stuff because I had decades of experience and was totally immersed in it. Plus, I use to do seminars where I would explain that stuff. I have always found that it is easier for me to write about something if I had stood up and spoken about it in front of an audience a few times. That was actually the brief I had for writing my first book. I used to do four to five, 5-day seminars on ‘SNA’ in the early 1980s, and it still amazes me that there would be 60 to a 100 people attending each seminar. The original publisher of my first book, who also happened to organize some of these 5-day seminars told me: ‘Just try and write what you stand up there and talk about for 5 days‘. In those days I did use to have a semi-photographic memory of sorts. I never used notes. Everything I was going to say was in my head and I could recall how I used to say it in public. So, that is what I did. I wrote that 500 page book by pencil! I would sit down, recall what my spiel would be about that topic, and write it down. It worked. When the book came out people who attended my seminars, and who would get a book for doing so, said that the book was like a transcript of my 5 day stand up dissertation. I haven’t stood up and spoken about astronomy in 12 or 13 years. So this was harder. But, it was fun.
4 Vesta is an asteroid; those small rocky bodies found mainly in that wide ‘belt’ between Mars and Jupiter. It discovered in 1807 was the fourth asteroid to be discovered. It is now the largest asteroid in the solar system in terms of mass, given that 1 Ceres was promoted to being a dwarf planet alongside Pluto. It is also a protoplanet, an embryonic terrestrial planet. Some even refer to it as the smallest terrestrial. It is a fully differentiated body credited with having the oldest known surface in the solar system. It is a carefully preserved relic from the very early days of the solar system. Some of you will also remember that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spent nearly 14 months in orbit around 4 Vesta in 2011 – 2012.