Word Wednesday: 2 Astronomy Books Reviewed

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This Week’s Word Is “Astronomy.”

This week I have two books about Space for you. One from long-term Word Wednesday favorites, DK books and the other from Firefly books, whose The Physics Behind… I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Both books are written by long-term Astronomy educators, whom I remember from my own childhood, Ian Ridpath and Heather Couper.

Ridpath’s Astronomy: A Visual Guide is a traditional guide to the night sky, with information about planets and positional astronomy, complete with star maps. The Universe Explained by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest is subtitled A Cosmic Q&A and takes the form of interesting questions with detailed answers.

What is DK’s Astronomy: A Visual Guide?

Astronomy: A Visual Guide has clearly been constructed with the intention that it be given as a gift. It’s a work of art from start to finish.

The book comes in a sturdy slipcase, and after removal, reveals an amazing purple and silver celestial scene. If this doesn’t whet your appetite for stargazing, nothing will. The book goes into the subject with a fair amount of depth and some of the physics explanations are better suited to older readers, but the positional astronomy sections will appeal to stargazers of all ages.

Upon opening, the book reveals all the characteristics of a DK book. Gorgeous photos, explanatory diagrams, and clear comprehensive text. There is also heavy use of sidebars, another DK book trait. The book is broken down into several sections and, within those, further subsections.

1. History.

Starting with the Babylonian astronomers, the history section looks at the evolution of astronomy as a science, moving through the invention of the telescope and detailing the rise of astrophysics. The history section would not be complete without charting the physical exploration of space and the book gives a brief overview of humankind’s journeys beyond the Earth’s surface, though in nothing like the detail of the recently reviewed Spacecraft

2. The Universe.

Broken down into three sections, Origins, Phenomena, and The Solar System, the Universe section details how the universe came to be as it is today and describes the physical bodies we find in it. This section clocks in at 100 pages.

Starting with the Big Bang, an explanation of our expanding universe, and how galaxies and stars are formed, the Universe chapter goes on to explain the varying types of star and galaxy that are found in the night sky. The Solar System section then explains local phenomenon and devotes pages to each of the major celestial bodies that comprise our Solar System, including Pluto, comets, asteroids, and meteorites. (For an explanation of the Solar System for younger children, do check out my review of The Skies Above My Eyes.)

3. The Night Sky.

This section takes up half of the book’s 350 pages. It’s the sort of thing I loved to look at when I was a child. It opens with an introduction to gazing at the heavens, the appearance of the sky, how to find what you’re looking for, and what equipment to use to do so.

After that, is a detailed list of the constellations. Each constellation is displayed with north at the top and south at the bottom with each displayed to the same scale. There is lots of information for each constellation. The book uses official International Astronomical Union diagrams (with constellation boundaries), with the correct Greek alphabet nomenclature. It also shows important deep-sky objects such as nebula and globular clusters (there are few words more satisfying to say out loud than “globular”). The constellation pages also detail “Features of Interest” for each constellation, a drawing of the constellations mythical representation (the greeks were good at extrapolation, it seems), and the constellation’s ideal viewing co-ordinates.

After the constellation section, there are monthly sky guides for North and South latitudes and an alamanac of celestial events right up to 2031.

The book is completed with a comprehensive index and glossary.

Why Read DK’s Astronomy: A Visual Guide

I wore out my dad’s copy of Ridpath’s, 1981, Hamlyn Guide to Astronomy when I was a child. This book would have been just the same. I then used that Hamlyn guide at higher and further education level. Again this book could do the same – not as a specialist text – but I dabbled with astronomy on the fringes of my courses and this book would have been perfect.

There is nothing not to like about DK’s Astronomy: A Visual Guide. It displays all the hallmarks you’d expect from a collaboration between veteran science popularizers such as DK and Ian Ridpath. I particularly loved the constellation section. I started out my astronomical journey with Usborne’s Night Sky (an edition of which is still available today), before graduating onto books like this. If you’d showed me the level of detail given in the constellation section of this visual guide, when I was 12 or 13, I probably would have fainted with excitement. (I didn’t get out much. I gave up astronomy for Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer, so not much has changed in that respect.)

If you’re looking for a book that delivers astronomy history and theory, at an accessible level and combines that with an exhaustive gazetteer of the night sky, this book is exactly what you need. With it I’m hoping to go forth and rekindle my family’s passion for looking upwards. Sadly, when the nights get dark, it’s all too easy to stare at the glowing thing in the corner of the living room. I’m hoping Astronomy: A Visual Guide can change that.

If you want to pick up a copy of Astronomy: A Visual Guide, you can do so, here in the US and here, in the UK.

What is The Universe Explained? 

The Universe Explained will make a very nice accompaniment to Astronomy: A Visual Guide. One of its authorsHeather Couper, I remember from appearing on Channel 4 (A UK TV station) where she talked about astronomy. This was exciting, because a) we’d not long been treated to so something as revolutionary as 4 TV channels, but mainly, b) because it was on TV at a reasonable time of the evening. Other than that, the only reliable source of astronomy on TV was BBC’s, shown once a month, The Sky at Night. This aired well past my bedtime and catch-up TV was a dream as far away as the Andromeda galaxy. I was, therefore, almost never able to watch it.

One of my abiding memories of Couper’s presentation is her calling the Sun “our local star.” To find it so referred to in the book, after about two minutes of reading, brought a smile to my face. The Universe Explained is a glossy softback of over 280 pages. There aren’t quite as many photos as in Astronomy: A Visual Guide, but the we are still treated to a visual feast. The book is broken down into 14 sections and every page (or often double page spread) poses and answers a question. Hence subtitle, A Cosmic Q&A. 

The sections are, with an example question from each:

  1. Sky Sights. Why does the sun turn red at sunset?
  2. Myths and Legends. How did ancient people think the Universe was created?
  3. Space Travel. What happened to the Russian space dogs?
  4. Telescopes. Can I make an astronomical discovery through the internet?
  5. The Moon. What is a Blue Moon?
  6. The Sun. What is a total eclipse of the Sun?
  7. Planets. How were planets born? (and more remarkably, Is there a planet where it rains diamonds?)
  8. Comets, Asteroids and Meteorites. Are all comets bad news?
  9. Stars. What are the Pillars of Creation?
  10. Black Holes. How can you detect a black hole if it’s completely dark?
  11. The Milky Way and Other Galaxies. What makes galaxies dark?
  12. The Big Bang. How can we measure the age of the universe?
  13. Time and Space. Why do we have leap years? What causes gravity?
  14. Alien Life. Have we contacted aliens? The answer to this comes complete with the pictogram of a message that has been sent into space.

Why Read The Universe Explained?

Using the Q&A format makes it easier for the book to talk about things that might just come across as waffly in a more conventional presentation. How do you bring the topic of space travel around to what happened to the Russian space dogs, without feeling like you’re going around the houses (kennels?).  There’s a great mix of elementary questions “Why is the sky blue?” and more difficult science, “How are stars born?”  For another example of this, take a look the two questions I outlined from the “Time and Space” section. The book is bang up to date with recent developments too. There is some cutting-edge astronomy in here; it’s not old recycled material.

The format also makes the book great for dipping in and out of. There’s no need to start at the beginning and read the book through. Just flip it open and find a question you like the look of. Who doesn’t want to know if they can buy a moon rock? Some of the questions, on the face of it, seem a bit daft, but that makes the book all the more accessible. For example, “Do carrots help you see in the dark?” but there is always an interesting bit of science or history attached to them. This is great for younger readers because it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a textbook. Books that facilitate learning without the reader noticing are Shangri-La for this type of publication, and The Universe Explained makes it there.

There is a fair amount of text but much like Heather Couper’s presentation style back in the ’80s, it’s accessible to anybody who is interested in the subject. The book is full of questions you didn’t know you wanted to know the answer to. The Universe Explained is a great book to have around the house. It’s perfect for those annoying science projects teachers send home, that is tangential to what your child has been learning at school. The answer to each question in here could probably provide material for an entire presentation.

Educators at their best.

These are two great books for my “Astronomy” Word Wednesday. Two books from people who have inspired generations of us to look up into the sky and understand what we’re seeing. Much of my passion for Astronomy has come from Couper and Ridpath, and it’s great to see that they are still bringing the wonder the Night Sky alive with books as wonderful as Astronomy: A Visual Guide and The Universe Explained. 

If you enjoyed this post, do check out my other Word Wednesday posts, here.

Disclosure: I received copies of both books for review.




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