Monday, December 23, 2013

Space: From Earth to the Edge of the Universe by Carole Stott, et al.

Much more than just pretty pictures
With so many awesome photographs coming from the Hubble Space Telescope, there is certainly no shortage of photography books on the subject of astronomy. I have browsed through many of them at my local bookstore, but this is by far the best one I’ve found. Space: From Earth to the Edge of the Universe was published in 2010 by Dorling Kindersley, a company that makes heavily illustrated coffee-table books on every conceivable subject. I don’t always agree with DK’s editorial and design choices, but this is one instance where they really did everything right.

As the subtitle indicates, the book is organized from the Earth outward, starting with the Moon, moving on through our solar system, to the Milky Way, other galaxies, and the universe in its entirety. The nearest objects are covered more extensively, since we have more information on them and more good photographs are available. Thus, our solar system takes up a good chunk of the book, with the Moon and Mars receiving the most attention, but the outer planets and their moons are also examined in detail. Beyond our solar system, the book features an impressive array of globular clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, captured in stunning images taken from ground-based observatories, space-based telescopes, and unmanned space probes. Often multiple shots are presented in varying wavelengths of light, highlighting different features of the same object.

This book is not just a field guide to planets, stars, and galaxies, however. It also explains the physical and chemical processes that govern these heavenly bodies. The life cycle of stars is covered in intricate detail. In addition to the gorgeous photos, there are plenty of well-executed diagrams and charts, on a par with what one might find in National Geographic or Scientific American. These help to clarify concepts for which photography is inadequate, like black holes, dark matter, or the Big Bang. There’s also a lot of information on man’s exploration of space and the technology of both spacecraft and telescopes, but the text doesn’t delve too deeply into the history of astronomy. Though Galileo or Kepler may be mentioned on occasion, it pretty much starts with Yuri Gagarin and moves forward from there.

The text is broken up into bite-sized chunks. A junior high school student might enjoy just reading the general introductory paragraphs of each spread, along with selected captions and charts, while an adult who reads all the fine print will get quite a thorough education, roughly equivalent to an undergrad-level intro to astronomy course. It really covers everything the non-professional astronomer would want to know about space. There’s even a useful appendix of charts summarizing the vital statistics of the planets and selected stars and galaxies.

Given the discoveries made in this field every day, any book on this topic runs the risk of being outdated in a decade, but in terms of where man’s body of astronomical knowledge stands today, this is an excellent overview. It touches on subjects that are very much in the news lately, like the discovery of exoplanets, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and Voyager 1’s exiting of the solar system. It provides details on space probes and observatories that have yet to be launched. If you want the most up-to-date information, obviously a book can’t compete with the internet, but for a comprehensive general reference that allows you to browse through the beautiful and fascinating wonders of the universe, this book is hard to beat.

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