AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We've been reporting this week on the discovery of a dwarf planet in the far reaches of our solar system, a pinkish ice ball that astronomers are calling 2012 VP113.The news inspired this week's must- read recommendation. Science fiction writer Jason Sheehan suggests a book about another team of space researchers. It's called "First Light," by Richard Preston.
JASON SHEEHAN, BYLINE: There is a moment early on in the book where a guy named Juan Carrasco is sitting in the control chair of the Big Eye. That's what scientists call the Hale telescope in California. He starts flipping switches, turning things on. He's prepping it for its night's work. Screens light up. Juan checks the temperature of the mirror; and then he hit a switch, and a set of Vickers pumps began to whine.
It's such a small, throwaway moment in history, but it's stuck with me because Juan isn't a scientist. He's not an astronomer. He has no degree in caring for this ridiculously expensive piece of equipment. Juan was just a barber from Texas with incredible fine motor skills, who got a job as the senior night assistant at the Palomar observatory; and on most nights, he was the man in control of the largest and most powerful telescope on Earth.
And the thing that really gets me is that I could spend a thousand years as a science fiction writer, telling stories of experiments and spaceships, and never come up with a character like Juan. "First Light" is one of the best books ever written about scientists being scientists. It's the true story of a telescope, and the people who work on it, but it feels like great science fiction.
It's full of geniuses and tinkerers, gadget-freaks, love and obsession, discovery and machinery and the stars. It's about one gigantic mirror, and the people who use it, hoping to see the bright gleam of the boundaries of our universe. And so when I hear news like the discovery of the dwarf planet 2012 VP113, of the mysteries that could exist on this tiny frozen, pinkish world spinning on fringes of our own dinky little solar system, I think about Juan, the man who drove the Hale.
The ex-barber who aimed and adjusted it and made it dance. And for just a moment I am reminded that real science will always be stranger, more beautiful and more human than any fiction could ever make it.
CORNISH: Jason Sheehan is the author of "Tales From the Radiation Age." The book he recommended is "First Light" by Richard Preston.