Shearer’s Books Blog | 8 September 2011
By Natalie Shearer
BRYAN GAENSLER, Australian astronomer and former recipient of the Young Australian of the Year Award, was at Shearer’s last Wednesday to launch his first book Extreme Cosmos. As the title implies, Extreme Cosmos explores the extremes of space – the fastest, hottest, heaviest, brightest, oldest and loudest elements of the universe. Its achievements are not only Gaensler’s methodical research, but in his ability to write about astrophysics in an eloquent everyday language that everyone can understand. Wilson da Silva, Editor in Chief of Cosmos magazine and winner of the 2000 Best Documentary AFI award for The Diplomat officially launched the book. Da Silva met Gaensler at Harvard – Gaensler was an associate professor there with a conspicuously Australian office replete with a large Manly Sea Eagles poster on its door. Jokes on Gaensler’s sporting prowess aside, da Silva said it is hard not to be impressed by Bryan who has consistently been a “brainiac at the top of his field, had a conscience (and been) a damn fine writer.” As a child, Gaensler was more interested in astronomy than dinosaurs and planes. He was also a voracious reader. Gaensler recalls that his school library did not have any books on his preferred subject, so his Grade 3 teacher suggested that he write one. Following this advice, Bryan traced pictures and copied texts form other astronomy books and presented the school with his work. So, to be accurate, Extreme Cosmos is not Gaensler’s first book, it is only his first published one. After a summer job at the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope, Gaensler fell in love with radio astronomy. Ever since he’s “been kinda obsessed with things that blow up or are extreme.”
The ‘extreme’ side of Extreme Cosmos also came from a running joke within his study group ‘Extreme Astrophysics’. While other groups had specific names and focuses like the ‘cosmology group’, Gaensler and co. worked on the fringes – on the extremes – of a diversity of things. He started to realise that if they were to literally be the ‘extreme’ astrophysics groups they had to investigate space’s ultimate nature.
Extreme Cosmos took two years to write with much of the research and gathering of information taking longer than expected. As Gaensler explained, “Behind every piece of information and every topic, there is a wealth of knowledge and amazingly smart people who worked out how to figure this information out.”
In order to arrive at the facts in the book, he had to work out which methodologies to use, sometimes do his own calculations and contact world experts to arrive at results he felt comfortable were likely to be accurate.
The outcome of his meticulous work is a exciting and engaging book for which you don’t have to be an astronomer to understand. In the words of da Silva, inExtreme Cosmos, Gaensler has “… elucidated a concept beautifully – it’s not only science but a bit of poetry, but then that’s Bryan for you.”