If George Rhee wasn't already a scientist, he could play one on TV.
With a shock of red-brown hair and no-nonsense glasses, Rhee certainly looks the part. He also speaks in the sort of deliberate, thoughtful tones one would expect from someone who thinks big thoughts about big subjects. In his case, it's the biggest subject of them all: the whole of the cosmos.
From his office in UNLV's Bigelow Physics Building, the astronomy and physics professor recently sat down to discuss his new book, Cosmic Dawn: The Search for the First Stars and Galaxies, a volume that serves as both a brief history of cosmology (the study of the universe) and a primer on what he sees as coming advances in astronomy.
Cosmic Dawn, he says, has been a decade-long endeavor. The project, which he joined at a writing partner's behest, became a solo endeavor when his colleague abandoned the book. Rhee worked on the manuscript for a time, but ultimately set it aside. Ten years later, a chance meeting with a publishing professional convinced him that it was worth reviving.
As one might expect, Rhee found that cosmology had changed over the intervening years. Aside from some of the basic information he'd written, he found himself starting from square one. "I wouldn't even say it was a revision," Rhee says. "It was a whole new book."
The difficult job of reworking the manuscript was further complicated by Rhee's lofty goal for the project: He wanted his work to be accessible to general readers; "to convey," he says, "a sense of wonder."
To that end, Cosmic Dawn begins with a longer chapter, "Cosmology Through Its Past," in which Rhee details science's high points through the ages, from the ancient Greeks' first probing questions, all the way to the contemporary thinking about the universe's origins. In this chapter and elsewhere, Rhee says he has done his best to help general-interest readers navigate what he admits is complex subject matter. Still, he says, "it takes a determined reader to get through it."
But the payoff is worth the effort. From mankind's study of cosmology, Rhee moves on to reward readers with fascinating, approachable distillations of daunting topics, including the core elements of the Big Bang Theory, scientists' observations of the lifecycle of stars, and the formation of galaxies -- a subject with particular relevance to Rhee's career.
Upon completing his doctorate in astronomy at Leiden University in 1989, Rhee spent three years teaching at New Mexico State University. There, he worked to broaden understanding of the true nature and scope of the cosmos. It's work he continues at UNLV.
When he began his academic career, he says, astronomers had identified only one solar system -- our own. Now, astronomers have identified a few thousand. "We think there are billions of solar systems in our galaxy alone," Rhee says. "By studying the others, we can understand something about other planet formation."
Knowledge about how planets, galaxies, and stars form is crucial to understanding life -- and our future -- on Earth.
"The more we study the universe, the more things seem interwoven and related. The elements in this room were formed inside stars," Rhee says, sweeping his hands outward to show the space of his office and all its contents. "That's a pretty visceral connection."
In Cosmic Dawn's final chapters, Rhee delves into one of his favorite subjects: science's exponential growth through technology. "I think we double the amount of known data every two years in astronomy," Rhee says. "It's staggering."
In the book, he walks readers through projects such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile. When complete, it will provide, in a single night, data equal to every word in the Library of Congress.
Rhee devotes an entire chapter to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018. The JWST will eventually operate one million miles from Earth (about four times as far away as the moon), and will be much too distant for astronauts to reach.
The JWST's goals, Rhee explains, are mapping the evolution of galaxies, searching for planets that might support life, studying the formation of stars and planets, and searching for the formation of the first stars and galaxies.
This last endeavor, discovering the origin of the first stars and galaxies, particularly intrigues Rhee. It's a subject he revisits throughout Cosmic Dawn. Identifying these formations will provide astronomers with a roadmap of the universe's development following the Big Bang, he says.
"It's a unique story. We get to discover the history of the universe once," Rhee says, comparing it to other landmark scientific advancements, such as the discovery of DNA. "You don't get to rediscover DNA. You get to do it once, and I think we are on the brink of that level of discovery in astronomy."
Rhee acknowledges his unabashed zeal for all things cosmological and hopes his readers share his sense of joy and wonder about the subject.
"I think it's an exciting story," he says. "We live in a world that is completely dominated by science and technology. With these advances, we can look back in time. We can see light that set out on its journey before the Earth existed. This is real. It's not some Hollywood thing made up for entertainment. It's such a fantastic age of discovery."