Astronomy Books: Wrapping Up 2017

Wondering what to read next? Looking for a gift for the amateur astronomer in your life? Check out these new astronomy books!

As you know from the reviews in Sky & Telescope, 2017 was a good year for astronomy books. We featured books on the hunt for exoplanets, X-ray astronomy, light pollution, solar eclipses, and more. Here, we're offering a few words on astronomy books hot off the press — just in time for the gift-giving season.

What We See in the Stars: An Illustrated Tour of the Night Sky
Kelsey Oseid
Ten Speed Press, 2017
160 pages, ISBN 978-0-399-57953-0
$16.99, hardcover

Kelsey Oseid’s What We See in the Stars is a delightful introduction to the night sky. As the title suggests, the book’s narrative is shaped by skylore and the cultural history of finding patterns in the stars. Approximately half the book is dedicated to the mythology and science of the constellations, with a full page dedicated to each constellation. Oseid has drawn the main star pattern for every constellation, overlaying each with a whimsical illustration (an eagle for Aquila, a swan for Cygnus, and so on). A paragraph or two of text accompanies each figure, offering an origin story for each constellation as well as a few pertinent scientific facts about the brightest stars in the pattern. These entries make for interesting reading, but what really shines here is Oseid’s artwork. Her favored medium, gouache, is ideal for the milky and ethereal depictions of the constellations, stars, and figures. The animal paintings are particularly charming (Lupus, the Wolf, is adorable, as is Ursa Minor, the Little Bear), but all have a distinctive style and grace.

After a thorough consideration of the constellations, Oseid moves on to describe and depict galaxies (the emphasis is on the structure and historical depictions of the Milky Way), the Sun (so, a bit of daytime sky), eclipses (lunar and solar), the planets, asteroids, meteors, and deep-space objects. The section dedicated to the planets is particularly beautiful and engaging.

What We See in the Stars is aimed at younger readers — Oseid has illustrated a number of children’s books — but is also an ideal book for anyone new to stargazing (or anyone you’re secretly hoping to lure into the hobby of amateur astronomy). Even experienced observers will have a difficult time resisting this well-done volume.

Andrew KaramComets: Nature and Culture
P. Andrew Karam
Reaktion Books (UK), dist. University of Chicago Press (US), 2017
224 pages, ISBN 978-1-78023-830-2
$24.95, cloth

You may already have seen a book or two from one of Reaktion’s many series — Botanical, Animal, Modern Architectures in History, Critical Lives, and so on. They’re generally slim paperbacks, nicely illustrated and well written. P. Andrew Karam’s Comets: Nature and Culture is a new offering in Reaktion’s Earth series, and it holds true to the publisher’s formula. This isn’t a giant book, but there’s a lot here to read and enjoy.

Placing comets, those icy space travelers, in a series dedicated to Earth might seem a bit strange at first. Once you dig into it, though, you’ll see that Comet fits with the series’ mandate to “trace the historical significance and cultural history of natural phenomena and resources” in an accessible way. Karam has a deep background in environmental and planetary science, with a specialization in radiation safety and cosmic radiation. His expertise in radiation is on display particularly well in the book’s opening chapters, which focus on the science of comets. Even well-read amateur astronomers should find his cogent explanation of comets’ spectra quite valuable.

Most of the book isn’t about the science of comets, though science never falls completely away while we travel from the era of Hippocrates to the present. Rather, Karam’s focus is on human perceptions of and reactions to comets and their seemingly unpredictable behavior. In addition to a chapter describing the various scientific studies of comets, you’ll find chapters on how humans have visualized comets (petroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, observing sketches, photographs), the role comets have played in religion and theology, how comets have shaped popular culture, and “history’s greatest comets.” The book ends with a return to science, and a consideration of comets — bearers of water and amino acids — as a potential source of life.

Trypsteen and WalkerSpectroscopy for Amateur Astronomers
Marc F. M. Trypsteen and Richard Walker
Cambridge University Press, 2017
162 pages, ISBN 9781107166189
$49.99, hardcover

Cambridge University Press (CUP) boasts a strong line of books on astronomy, and with the recent release of two books on amateur spectroscopy, the collection has grown only stronger. Most amateur astronomers have some general sense of the importance of spectroscopy in the history of astronomy; the measurement of the electromagnetic spectrum (think emission line or absorption line spectra) has helped scientists analyze the composition and structure of a universe not observable in visible light. Most of these spectroscopic studies have been completed in the realm of professional astronomy, but with the development of CCD cameras and (relatively) affordable spectrographs, more and more amateur astronomers have become involved spectroscopy. If you’re looking for a new observing challenge, or know someone who is, look to CUP for help getting started in with spectroscopy.

Trypsteen and Walker’s Spectroscopy for Amateur Astronomers outlines the science of spectroscopy in some detail, and while aimed at amateurs, this text is best suited for experienced observers and focused readers, particularly those who already have some imaging experience. If you’re a motivated amateur, this book will help you choose a spectrograph, guide you through your first recording, offer advice on processing the recorded spectra, and show you how to analyze it — all with amateur equipment.

Pair this book with Richard Walker’s Spectral Atlas for Amateur Astronomers (see below) and you’ll have a comprehensive package on spectroscopy.

Spectral Atlas for Amateur Astronomers: A Guide to the Spectra of Astronomical Objects and Terrestrial Light Sources
Richard WalkerRichard Walker
Cambridge University Press, 2017
290 pages, ISBN 9781107165908
$89.99, hardcover

Trypsteen and Walker’s Spectroscopy for Amateur Astronomers does a thorough job of explaining the science of spectroscopy and should help interested amateurs with equipment choices and processing; the Spectral Atlas for Amateur Astronomers gives them everything else they’ll need, namely, a variety of documents and sample spectra for popular targets. It brings together the spectra for the main stellar classes, as well as spectra from stars at various stages of development (from protostars all the way through the stellar life cycle to their transformation into planetary nebulae, supernovae, or white dwarfs). The atlas also includes documents and spectra for star clusters, extragalactic objects, and emission nebulae.

Pair this book with Marc F. M. Trypsteen and Richard Walker’s Spectroscopy for Amateur Astronomers (see above and below) and you’ll have a comprehensive package on spectroscopy.

Cambridge University PressComplete Spectroscopy for Amateurs
Richard Walker and Marc F. M. Trypsteen
2 vols, ISBN 9781316642566
$105.00, hardcover

Cambridge University Press sells the Spectral Atlas for Amateur Astronomers: A Guide to the Spectra of Astronomical Objects and Terrestrial Light Sources and Spectroscopy for Amateur Astronomers as a set, at a discount.


Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World
Phaidon Editors, Paul Murdin
Phaidon, 2017
352 pages, ISBN 978 0 7148 7461 6
$59.95, hardcover

Phaidon is known for its well-designed art and architecture books, but the publishing house has really outdone itself with the recent release of Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World. Universe showcases a diverse collection of astrophotographs, scientific drawings, space souvenirs, and artworks selected by an international panel of experts. About one third of the book’s 300 illustrations come from the world of art, offering a fresh perspective on our place in the world. Almost all the illustrations are arranged in pairs, on facing pages, inviting the reader to make comparisons based on appearance, subject, age, or purpose. The content is geographically and temporally wide-ranging, representing almost every part of the populated world, with some works dating back to 16,500 BC.

Some of the astrophotography included in Universe will be familiar to Sky & Telescope readers. The editors made liberal use of NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, JPL-Caltech, and ESA images, as well as the work of well-known photographers and space artists. But a lot of the material comes from less accessible science institutions, art museums, or university archives, and a good many of the works are drawn from private collections.

Universe is a lovely book, with a colorful dustcover, clean typeface, and sharp printing. Anyone interested in space, history, or art will find hours of good reading in this volume.

(See our full review of Universe in the February 2018 issue of Sky & Telescope)

Koenig and BinnewiesThe Cambridge Photographic Atlas of Galaxies
Michael König and Stefan Binnewies; trans. Phillip Helbig
Cambridge University Press, 2017
352 page, ISBN 9781107189485
$54.99, hardcover

Kudos to Cambridge University Press for providing this English translation of König and Binnewies’s Bildatlas der Galaxien: Die Astrophysik hinter den Astrophotografien (2016). Readers of Sky & Telescope might recognize the name of Stefan Binnewies, as we often draw from the extensive collection of images that he and his collaborator, Josef Pöpsel, have created at Capella Observatory. Michael König, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, is also an astrophotographer, so if you know one thing about this atlas, it’s that the images are top notch.

But the science here is top notch, as well. The authors explain the current state of research for more than 300 galaxies and related objects. Chapters cover the main galaxy types (spiral, elliptical, barred spiral) as well as irregular, dwarf, interacting, and ring galaxies. There’s a lengthy section on galaxy clusters and groups, as well as an interesting chapter on quasars and gravitational lenses. Philip Helbig has done a nice translation here; the chapters are all quite readable, an admirable result given all the technical language involved. Whether you’re looking for a reference book to flesh out your observing notes or a photo book to lose yourself in on a cold winter evening, you won’t go wrong if you pick up The Cambridge Photographic Atlas of Galaxies.

In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micrometeorites and Their Terrestrial ImpostersJon Larsen
Jon Larsen
Voyageur Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group, 2017
152 pages, ISBN 9780760352649
$24.99, hardcover

Earlier this year, we published a piece about hunting for (and finding) micrometeorites on rooftops. The study focused primarily on micrometeorites in Norway, but it made us wonder: If we grabbed a rare-earth magnet and scraped around on our roofs and under our drain spouts, would we find micrometeorites here? If we did manage to sort out some minuscule spheres from the rest of the detritus in our gutters, how would we know they were actually meteorites?

Luckily, one of the collectors involved in the Norwegian study, Jon Larsen, has provided us with a manual for micrometeorite classification. In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micrometeorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters explains the origins of these tiny, spherical space rocks and offers a comprehensive pictorial reference identifying them. Over the course of six years, Larsen conducted nearly 1,000 field searches in 50 countries and tracked his findings in a photo database that now holds data for more than 40,000 different objects. From that database, he has drawn representative images of the types of micrometeorites found on Earth. In addition, he’s provided an extensive selection of “imposter” spherules — anthropogenic spherules created by humans during various industrial pursuits as well as spherules that occur naturally on Earth.

Since the photos in the book were taken with the help of a USB microscope, they’ll be immediately useful to only the most serious micrometeorite hunter amongst us, but even if you’re only casually interested in objects falling from the sky, consider picking up In Search of Stardust. The high-res images of micrometeorites are fun to look at, and so are the photos of anthropogenic and naturally occurring spherules. It’s just cool to see bits of the world(s) usually hidden from our view.

Piers BizonyMoonshots: 50 Years of NASA Space Exploration Seen Through Hasselblad Cameras
Piers Bizony
Voyageur Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group, 2017
240 Pages, ISBN 9780760352625
$75.00, hardcover

It’s been more than 55 years since Walter Schirra pulled out a Hasselblad film camera and snapped a few shots of Earth through the window of his Mercury space capsule. The historic moments were whipping by Schirra so quickly that he may not have realized that he was opening one of the most important chapters of the space era, one that documented the history of human civilization from a vantage point few would ever have. As the space program developed from Mercury to Apollo, so too did its photo program. The Hasselblad camera, with its easy-to-handle film cartridges (think clumsy astronaut gloves), became ever more entwined with NASA’s ambitions to document their endeavors, particularly the work done by the astronauts in their spacecraft and, eventually, on the surface of the Moon.

Moonshots is a somewhat romanticized yet still fascinating photographic account of NASA’s space program. As the title of the book suggests, most of the photos in the book were taken during the era of crewed lunar missions to the Moon. But Bizony travels forward in the timeline as well to discuss images from space shuttle missions and the various space stations that have orbited Earth. Moonshots comes encased in a heavy-duty slipcover, the better to protect the book’s beauty from dings and fading. Both space fans and photography buffs will like this book.


The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South PoleMark Bowen
Mark Bowen
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
424 pages, ISBN978-1-137-28008-4
$27.99, hardcover

Mark Bowen has been tracking the search for neutrinos — an elementary particle, incredibly difficult to detect — since 1997. Back then, the leading neutrino project was known as the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), and it was still early days in the quest to embed a detector sensitive enough to detect a super-small-mass particle under the ice at the South Pole. Bowen’s early arrival on the scene put him in the perfect position to write about the search for neutrinos over the longue durée, taking us from the first days of neutrino discovery (when they were but a niggle in Wolfgang Pauli’s mind) to the November 2013 announcement of the direct detection by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole of neutrinos that originated in outer space.

Neutrino neophytes will appreciate the opening section of The Telescope in the Ice, which details the “infancy and youth” of neutrino research. Bowen provides a lucid explanation of elementary particles and fundamental forces, as well as a colorful history of the first scientists to puzzle through the workings of these theoretical (at first) particles. But most of the book is focused on the present and recent past, when physicists and engineers worked collaboratively (although not without conflict) across decades to design and construct a particle detector at the South Pole. The physical structure of the well-functioning IceCube Neutrino Observatory is mind-boggling: imagine drilling 86 holes some 3.5 km (1.6 miles) deep … through Antarctic ice. Once the holes are drilled, you need to dangle 86 separate strings, each with 60 optical sensors into the holes, then peg out the top of each string at a depth of 1.5 km (~1 mile). Just the logistics of building the IceCube have a pretty big “wow” factor, and that’s before we even consider the science behind the project. Capturing evidence of supernovae, black hole collisions, dark matter? It’s no wonder physicists are willing to go to the end of the Earth to build a neutrino detector.

If you like your science nonfiction to read like an adventure story (think Eiger Dreams with fewer mountains), The Telescope in the Ice is the book for you.

Observer’s Handbook 2018
James S. Edgar, Editor
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 2017
352 pages, ISBN 9781927879122
$28.95, paperback

No amateur astronomer should be without the current edition of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Observer’s Handbook. Observers will find the chapter on upcoming astronomical events, which includes a “Sky Month by Month” section, invaluable for planning observing sessions. Beyond that, there are dozens of other reasons to pick up the Handbook several times a week. It’s an amazing compendium of astronomical knowledge – if you have a question, you’ll undoubtedly find the answer here. When will a lunar occultation be visible from my location? How wide open are Saturn’s rings? What’s the brightest asteroid? How are stars classified by spectra? It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the most useful and informative books out there for amateur astronomers, whether they’re active observers or armchair aficionados.

The Zoomable Universe
Caleb Sharf, illus. Ron Miller
Scientific American / Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017
224 pages, ISBN 978-0-374-71571-7
$28.00, hardcover

One of the most difficult concepts to convey to the curious is scale. Do you remember sitting in your high school or university astronomy course, wondering exactly how long 1027 meters really was? When your instructor told you that was the distance light could travel in about 93 billion years, did it really clear things up for you? Probably not.

In The Zoomable Universe, Caleb Sharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, and science illustrator Ron Miller have teamed up with 5W Infographics to help us wrap our minds around the greatest and smallest of all distances — from the limits of the observable universe (1027 meters) to the subatomic realm (10-35 meters). In other words, we zoom from the largest to the smallest scales currently imaginable, step by step, and leap by leap. Sharf’s prose is friendly and accessible, which helps, because even in small words, multiverses and particle physics can be confusing. The illustrations are engaging and used to good effect. Ostensibly about scale, there’s a lot of astronomical and geophysical information packed into this book. Just a single example: when we start looking at distances within our own solar system, say from about 1013 to 109 meters from Earth, we get a good lesson on planetary structure and composition. The authors even manage to wedge in a nice (and more importantly, relevant) spread on exoplanets in this section.

Nirmala NatarajThe Planets: Photographs from the Archives of NASA
Nirmala Nataraj, preface by Bill Nye
Chronicle Books, 2017
246 pages, ISBN 978-1-4521-5936-2
$40, hardcover

This year saw some fantastic things come out of planetary missions: Cassini’s “grand finale” dive past Saturn’s rings; the release of the first science results from the Juno mission to Jupiter; and more about Mars thanks to NASA’s MAVEN mission. So it’s only right to wrap up the year with a photo essay celebrating the science and beauty of our solar system's planet. Science writer Nirmala Nataraj searched NASA’s photo archives for the most striking images of the major planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — and their satellites and turned them into an informative and intriguing collection. You'll never tire of looking at high-res images of the surface of Mars (calderas, dunes, polar ice caps) and Venus (highlands, impact craters, debris flows). And you'll wonder where your morning went when you look up from the luscious swirls of Jupiter’s bands and sharp edges of Saturn’s rings.

Perhaps giving a nod to the somewhat contentious debate over the definition of the word “planet,” The Planets also offers a solid set of images representing other bodies in the solar system. Here you’ll find the icy plains of Pluto and the rocky craters of Ceres, the dusty crags of Comet 67/P and the twisted pole of Vesta.

Anyone interested in planetary science or space missions will enjoy keeping the entire solar system on their book shelf, and The Planets makes that possible.

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