The Milky Way above the southern horizon on moonless nights in September well away from sources of light pollution. (Terence Dickinson)

Astronomy Book Reviews

Here is a collection of book reviews that have appeared in SkyNews over the years.

The listing is alphabetical. Visit the publisher’s web site or perform an online search to find out about a particular book’s price and availability.  Your local telescope dealer may stock some of these, while others will appear in large book stores.  Those volumes out of print can usually be found used through web sites such as AbeBooks.com and other used book dealers.

Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports

Edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

Published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, this interesting package contains the full text and illustrations from the original NASA mission press kit for the news media, as well as the postflight mission operations report and text of the crew’s press conference. A nice added touch, in a pouch at the back of the book, is a CD-ROM with more than 1,000 Earth and Moon images from the mission—the familiar ones plus many more from the archives. This book is one of a series focused on the Moon landing missions, all published in Canada by Apogee Press of Burlington, Ontario. www.cgpublishing.com

Apollo 13: The NASA Mission Reports

Edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

One of the great adventure stories of human space exploration, the 1970 Apollo 13 mission was an amazing amalgam of luck (both good and bad) and ingenuity. The astronauts’ exploits were made famous to a new generation with the release of the outstanding 1995 film Apollo 13. This volume, produced in Canada, is one of a series that chronicles the American space program. It provides spaceflight buffs with the original mission press kit for the news media and the complete debriefing transcripts, as well as transcripts of the congressional hearings that followed. Stored in a pouch at the back of the book is an accompanying CD-ROM with hundreds of mission images from NASA archives, plus interviews and press conferences.

Apollo 15: The NASA Mission Reports, Vol. 1

Edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

Many SkyNews readers can trace their interest in astronomy and space to the heyday of the space program in the 1960s and early 1970s. With major launches almost monthly, it was reasonable to conclude that this was just the beginning. The idea that we were emerging into a bold new frontier captivated millions of space-exploration fans who were convinced that within a few decades, there would be hotels on the Moon and bases on Mars. Today’s perspective of the early 21st century has instead shown what incredible technological achievements the manned Moon landings were.
This Apollo 15 report is part of a long series of volumes (nearly two dozen titles already in print) that will eventually chronicle all the major manned and unmanned NASA missions from the beginning of the space age. Each volume includes every word of the official NASA press releases relating to the mission and its hardware, plus an accompanying CD containing images from the mission. Lifelong space-exploration buffs will love it. And because the series is produced in Canada, your local bookstore likely has copies right on the shelf.

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed From Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”

By Philip Plait (Wiley)

At least twice last year, the Fox Television Network broadcast “Did We Land on the Moon?” a one-hour “documentary” supporting the claims of conspiracy theorists who say they have proof that the Apollo Moon landings were faked at a U.S. Air Force base and that the whole Apollo program was a fraud. In fact, the real fraud was the TV program itself, which was full of factual errors, misleading statements and outrageous accusations (for instance, that NASA murdered several astronauts to keep them from “talking”).

The day after the broadcast, NASA was flooded with calls, especially from teachers having trouble answering questions from kids who had seen the program. In an unusual move, rather than directing the teachers to NASA websites, the agency’s public relations officials referred them to www.badastronomy.com, a website operated by Philip Plait, an astronomy professor at Sonoma State University in California. Plait is the Lone Ranger of Bad Astronomy, constantly on the watch for muddy thinking, crazy conspiracies and bogus simplifications in astronomy. And there were plenty of all three in the Moon hoax broadcast. But Plait doesn’t stop there.

You quickly get an idea of Plait’s approach through some of his chapter titles: “Mars Is in the Seventh House, But Venus Has Left the Building: Why Astrology Doesn’t Work” and “Star Hustlers: Star Naming for Dummies.” Plait looks into the equinox egg-balancing myth, misconceptions about the Hubble Space Telescope, why people think Polaris is the brightest star in the sky, and much more. Written in everyday language with a refreshing dash of humour, Bad Astronomy gets my full five-star rating. Every school in the country should have a copy of this wonderful reference.

Bright Star Atlas: 2000.0

By Wil Tirion and Brian Skiff (Willmann-Bell)

If any star atlas could justifiably be called the essential atlas for the average amateur astronomer, this is it. Soon after you get into the hobby, you will need something like the Bright Star Atlas. I have three copies handy—one in my observatory, one on my editor’s desk and one in my car—just to be certain that one is always within reach. The format is perfect: 9-by-12-inch size, with 10 charts that cover the entire heavens to magnitude 6.5, the naked-eye limit in dark, rural conditions. Facing each chart is Brian Skiff’s listing of the best galaxies, nebulas, star clusters and double stars visible in that chart. Other material includes smaller-scale charts for orientation. Although not generally available in bookstores, the Bright Star Atlas is stocked by many telescope dealers, and it is available direct from the publisher (804-320-7016).

Carl Sagan: A Life

By Keay Davidson (Wiley)

If you have ever wanted to know more about astronomer Carl Sagan, this book is for you. Keay Davidson, a science reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, spent months in lengthy interviews with Sagan’s widow and two ex-wives and dozens of his friends, colleagues and acquaintances for this detailed and penetrating biography. Davidson’s research is impressive. He even interviewed the owner of the boarding house where Sagan stayed in 1957 while he was working at Yerkes Observatory. At 540 pages, this is a massive work, one that I would class as a “warts and all” report. Overall, Davidson offers abundant evidence that Sagan was a unique and powerful force in 20th-century astronomy. Like no one else before him, Sagan packed the accomplishments of two full and highly successful vocations—scientist and astronomy popularizer—into his 62 years on this planet. Highly recommended for Sagan fans.

Celestial Treasury: From the Music of the Spheres to the Conquest of Space

By Marc Lachièze-Rey and Jean-Pierre Luminet (Cambridge University Press)

Whenever a new coffee-table astronomy book appears, I check to see whether the authors have done their homework. The homework I mean is proper, thorough and imaginative illustration research. That’s certainly the case here, where many of the superbly reproduced illustrations were new to me. Dipping with equal enthusiasm into modern cosmological theory and the history of astronomy, the authors have produced a truly beautiful work. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy section on historical star charts. This is a book to savour.

The book is very much a history of the sky as perceived by the inhabitants of this planet. Four main topics unify the presentation: the different mechanical schemes for understanding planetary motion; the representation of the sky and the universe through maps and globes; creation traditions; and mythological traditions. What a sumptuous volume! Over 400 illustrations of outstanding quality grace the more than 200 oversized pages, all in colour and finely reproduced. Translated from the French, the text consists mainly of extended captions for the wonderful illustrations. A fitting gift for the armchair astronomer interested in the history of astronomy.

Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System

By Bruce Dorminey (Copernicus Books)

Bruce Dorminey is an experienced astronomy and space-technology writer, and it shows. This is a well-researched and completely up-to-date account of the quest to find planets orbiting other stars. It is also the only book on the subject that I have seen which gives more than a passing mention to the important role Gordon Walker and other Canadian astronomers played in establishing the groundwork leading to the first discovery of an extrasolar planet orbiting a Sun-like star, in 1995. In many ways, this is a detective story. For half a century, astronomers were convinced that other planets must be out there. But only during the past seven years did they start finding them—and they didn’t find what they expected. It’s a great ongoing saga, and Dorminey tells it well.

Glorious Eclipses: Their Past, Present and Future

By Serge Brunier and Jean-Pierre Luminet (Cambridge University Press)

This may be the most beautiful book on eclipses ever produced, with scores of wonderful eclipse photos showing virtually every possible aspect of a total eclipse of the Sun. Less attention is given to lunar eclipses, but the overall coverage is wide-ranging and includes many references to and illustrations of historical eclipses. Total and annular eclipse paths from 2001 to 2060 are included on three double-page maps of the world. More detailed maps are provided for the total solar and lunar eclipses of the first 20 years of the 21st century. The section offering practical advice about photographing solar and lunar eclipses is useful, as far as it goes, but comparatively brief.

The book is translated from the French by Storm Dunlop, a British astronomer and historian. The translation is carefully done and reads well. The heart of the book and its great success are the exquisitely produced illustrations—and the generous number of them. The historical sections are gorgeously done.

Anyone who has made the effort to travel halfway around the world to see the spectacle of a total eclipse of the Sun will be interested in this book and probably want to own it. It would make an ideal gift for the addicted eclipse chaser.

Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe

By Martin Rees (Basic Books)

I will declare a bias at the outset. I am a big Martin Rees fan. When it comes to presenting the essential aspects of cosmology in concise and understandable language, few research astronomers can match Sir Martin, England’s Astronomer Royal. In this volume, Rees explains how just six numbers, imprinted on the forces of nature in the Big Bang, determine the essential features of the cosmos—the formation of stars, the rate of the universe’s expansion, the creation of the elements, the development of conditions for life, and so on. How did these laws of the universe get set in place, and why does our universe seem “tuned” to favour the development of life? This is a cerebral guide to the deepest mysteries of the cosmos, with a master explainer at the controls.

Mars: The NASA Mission Reports

Edited by Robert Godwin (Apogee Books)

In July 1965, the first pictures of Mars were returned to Earth from Mariner 4 as it flew near the planet. A dozen fuzzy images revealed a cratered landscape that stunned scientists and amateur astronomers alike, both of whom had been raised with the theory of canals on Mars and endless speculative debates about life on the red planet. As more space probes surveyed our neighbour world, the real Mars turned out to be much different and far more complex than anyone had imagined. This book provides the complete NASA press kits and official mission results for every Mars exploration, from the 1964 launch of Mariner 4 to the 1999 Mars Polar Lander’s failure. At 424 pages, it’s a full helping of information that will keep the Mars buff busy for months. A CD-ROM tucked inside the back cover is filled with images from the Mars missions documented in the book as well as NASA movies for viewing on your computer. This is an outstanding reference at a reasonable price.

Our Cosmic Habitat

By Martin Rees (Princeton University Press)

Whenever I review a book by Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, I have to mention this disclaimer: I am a big fan of Rees’s writing. I always expect to be informed about the latest thinking on cosmology in a clear, straightforward way. Rarely does Sir Martin disappoint. And although I was not disappointed, I was more impressed with his last book, Just Six Numbers, than with this offering, which is based on a series of talks Rees presented at Princeton University in 2000. However, if you have never read Rees, this is a good place to begin, because it is his broadest book in many years. It opens with the formation of stars and planets, then addresses the development of life and intelligence, continues with the formation of galaxies and black holes and concludes with the beginning and end of the universe. Overall, this is a fine introduction to current thinking on the main ideas in modern astronomy and cosmology.

Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth

By Robert Shapiro (Wiley)

The possibilities of extraterrestrial life have fascinated humans for millennia. Of course, there are many books on this subject, but I especially enjoyed this one because Robert Shapiro, a DNA expert and professor at New York University, has focused on our dreams of life elsewhere and compared those dreams to what we know today.

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe

By Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee (Copernicus)

In the early 1960s, American astronomer Frank Drake developed his famous “Drake equation” for estimating the number of technologically advanced civilizations in the galaxy. By multiplying seven factors together—such as the number of stars in the galaxy that should have planets, the number of those planets which should have life, and so on—Drake estimated that our galaxy contains about one million planets which could harbour advanced civilizations. Today, though, in view of a growing list of recent discoveries, a substantial number of astronomers and other researchers think that the Drake equation is in need of an overhaul.

In Rare Earth, geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee reexamine the whole issue and conclude that in the context of today’s knowledge, the Drake equation is seriously flawed. They persuasively argue that planets supporting complex life—sentient creatures—are probably “exceedingly rare in the universe.” One of the factors not known in 1961, when Drake did his original calculations, is that asteroid and comet impacts have had devastating effects on the Earth’s history. Moreover, astronomers now know that Jupiter’s immense gravity protects us by vacuuming up 99 percent of the comets and asteroids which could strike Earth. And, with more recent discoveries of Jupiter-sized planets orbiting other stars, astronomers are learning that such massive worlds often do not form in the right place in a planetary system or in the type of orbit which would protect an Earth-like planet. The authors also point out that the Earth’s large Moon, which stabilizes our planet’s rotation axis and prevents wild climate gyrations, was formed as the result of an accidental collision with a Mars-sized planet. Such coincidences, they maintain, must be rare. Many more arguments are presented that, together, devastate the optimistic conclusions of Drake’s original equation. “We hope we’re wrong,” say Ward and Brownlee. Judge for yourself. Highly recommended.

Redshift 4: The Ultimate Exploration of the Universe

Planetarium Software for PCs (Maris Multimedia)

RedShift 4 is the most recent version of the popular planetarium soft-ware by Maris Multimedia. Like other planetarium software (such as Simulation Curriculum Corp. and TheSky), this versatile program lets you view the sky from anywhere on Earth—or anywhere in the solar system—for any day of the year, for any year, for thousands of years into the future or the past. RedShift 4 is also equipped with the latest star and galaxy catalogues and image banks to display hundreds of objects.

Among the numerous changes from RedShift 3 are the addition of the new Tycho 2 Star Catalog, which gives more precise distances to 2.5 million stars down to 11th magnitude; the Hubble Guide Star Catalog; and the Principal Galaxies Catalog, containing details on over 70,000 galaxies. Animated mini-lectures address the Big Bang, the solar system, the lives of stars and double stars, the nature of our Sun, and more.

The program can be used to track the motions of the planets, comets and thousands of asteroids. Stars are displayed to an astonishing magnitude 20! Follow the motions of any object in the sky; do it frame by frame, or put them on play, with the time elapsed between frames set to whatever you want. There is a nice astronomy dictionary that I found easy to use.

RedShift 4 will display multiple windows that allow you to watch an event from several locations at once. The program also has a subsection called the Sky Diary, a useful feature which describes all solar system events that occur during any given time frame (eclipses, conjunctions, and so on).

Because I am already familiar with the constellations, my father, who has no experience under the stars but is comfortable with computers, became my test subject. I asked him to find three objects: Mizar and Alcor in the Big Dipper’s handle; the Hercules star cluster; and, finally, the Andromeda Galaxy. I used RedShift 4 to create and print out several star charts that didn’t have very much detail other than the brighter stars and the objects for which he was looking. Then I sent him out with tripod-mounted 7×50 binoculars.

The first night, he found Mizar and Alcor and the Andromeda Galaxy but not the Hercules cluster. The problem wasn’t identifying the cluster itself but finding the Hercules constellation. The charts don’t identify north, making it difficult to tell in which direction to look. The usefulness of these charts to the beginner is questionable, since the magnitude values are almost meaningless. Instead, a rank beginner should purchase a recommended guidebook like NightWatch to learn the sky, then use RedShift 4 for its more detailed charts and planetarium capabilities.

I was disappointed that the software doesn’t include magnitudes or distances to deep-sky objects on its printed-out charts, even though it does provide this information on the computer screen when you click on a deep-sky object. RedShift 4 has a direct connection to its user-friendly website, where you have the option of upgrading your copy of RedShift. I would advise doing this, since several bugs have been worked out since the program’s initial release.

Review by Jim Bradford

Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space, and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril

By Timothy Ferris (Simon & Shuster)

This engaging paean to stargazing and its aficionados amply demon-strates that there are as many routes (and rewards) to a lifelong love of astronomy as there are stars in the sky. While probing the motivations of some of amateur astronomy’s most dedicated practitioners, award-winning writer Timothy Ferris presents a memoir of his own decades-long love affair with the night sky.

His subjects include comet hunter David Levy, eagle-eyed observers Stephen James O’Meara and Barbara Wilson, astrophotographers Jack Newton and Don Parker and a truly touching portrait of venerable astronomy popularizer Patrick Moore, interspersed with glimpses of historical forebears like the Herschels, Huggins and Hale. In charting the ways that amateurs’ efforts can be scientifically significant, Ferris offers several tips on emerging avenues for amateur involvement.

Along the way, he takes readers on a tour of the universe’s grandest sights, with eloquent descriptions of what can be glimpsed through the eyepiece if one takes the time to learn how to see. Experienced observers will be enticed by challenging new objects to pursue; beginning enthusiasts will find useful information to get them started. Always eloquent and at times brilliantly original, Ferris is as keen an observer of the things that give astronomy its ageless appeal as he is of the people who pursue them.

To be human, asserts Ferris, is to “observe and try to understand”—this book should inspire many to do just that.

Shoemaker by Levy: The Man Who Made An Impact

By David H. Levy (Princeton University Press)

As recently as the early 1960s, astronomers were still arguing about the origin of the Moon’s craters. Were they caused by asteroids smashing into the lunar surface, or did they originate from within through volcanic action? The man who almost single-handedly gathered the first convincing evidence that the craters were caused by asteroid impacts was American astrogeologist Eugene Merle Shoemaker, one of the towering figures of planetary science in the last half of the 20th century.

From the mid-1960s until his tragic death in a 1997 automobile collision, Shoemaker was scientifically involved in almost all the major explorations of the solar system—both the robotic missions to the Moon and planets and the Apollo lunar landings, for which he trained the astronauts in the geological aspects of their moonwalks. SkyNews columnist David Levy—best known as the codiscoverer, along with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, of the Jupiter-impacting Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9—is the perfect person to chronicle Shoemaker’s life. He brings a wonderful warmth to his task that obviously flows from years of admiration for and friendship with his subject. And Levy has a great story with which to work. Shoemaker packed a life and a half into his 69 years. A likable man who inspired everyone he met, he was not only nice but right. That story is recorded in this delightful book, one of the most engaging biographies I have read. Nice work, David.

Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer

By Leslie C. Peltier (Sky Publishing)

Out of print for years, this beautifully written autobiography of one of the most accomplished amateur astronomers of the 20th century is available once again. This edition is augmented with new photos of Peltier’s home and observatory and with a delightful foreword by SkyNews columnist David Levy. When I bought the first edition of this book in 1965, I couldn’t put it down. Here were the words of someone utterly enchanted by the stars. The stories of Peltier’s first telescope and his later observatories and the excitement of his observations and discoveries were so compelling, I felt I knew this remarkable man —discoverer of 12 comets and 6 novas—as a personal friend. His book has influenced thousands of amateur astronomers. You could be one of them.

Storms from the Sun: The Emerging Science of Space Weather

By Michael J. Carlowicz and Ramon E. Lopez (Joseph Henry Press)

An increasing reliance on satellites for everything from telephone and TV signals to ATMs is fuelling a need for accurate predictions of space weather—the complex system of solar and magnetic influences that envelops our planet. Science writer Michael Carlowicz and space physicist Ramon Lopez make a compelling case for continuing—and expanding—current efforts to understand, monitor and respond to solar outbursts such as flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) in time to protect vulnerable satellites and power grids from multi-million-dollar failures.

This should be required reading for engineers and policy makers who deal daily with large-scale communications or electricity systems. For anyone concerned about the human aspects of spaceflight—or even airline travel—Storms From the Sun offers some alarming statistics on space-weather-related radiation hazards.
Engrossing historical data back up the authors’ assertion that “the Sun is a dynamic, variable star.” That comes as no surprise to regular observers of sunspots and auroras, but did you know that “the Sun squeezes a little bit of Earth’s atmosphere into space with every CME blast”? Fascinating reading for all denizens of spaceship Earth.

Target Earth

By Duncan Steel (Reader’s Digest)

Subtitled “The search for rogue asteroids and doomsday comets that threaten our planet,” this book would make a terrific addition to a school library or to a young astronomer’s home bookshelf. Packed with more than 300 colour photos and illustrations—many of which I had never seen before—Target Earth will appeal to a wide audience. It is a superb up-to-date reference for astronomy buffs of all ages who are interested in the quickly evolving subject of near-Earth asteroids and the threat they pose to life on our planet. Asteroid and comet expert Duncan Steel has done a fine job of covering all the essential topics as well as some welcome new ones, such as critical discussions of blockbuster asteroid/comet-impact movies and the Torino impact scale. During the recent holiday book-buying season, this was one of the top-selling astronomy books in Canada.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Meteorites

By O. Richard Norton (Cambridge University Press)

In this lavishly illustrated and attractively produced introduction to meteoritics, O. Richard Norton covers current competing theories about where and how meteorites originate, what they can tell us about the past and present nature of our solar system and what tools scientists use to study them.

The book’s strongest points are abundant colour photos showing surface features of actual meteorite specimens, sharp colour images revealing fine internal details down to the microscopic level, and many useful tables and diagrams. In style and manner of presentation, this is more a textbook than an encyclopaedia, heavy on geological jargon and light on the sort of entertaining meteorite lore that only occasionally enlivens the text. Intended as a more technically oriented follow-up to Norton’s earlier Rocks From Space, this new volume offers a wealth of intricate detail to anyone eager to learn more about meteorite mineralogy and how these enticing specimens from space provide clues to what goes on inside asteroids, comets, planets—and even stars.

The Celestial Sphere: A Narrated Tour of the Night Sky

By Robert Dick; Starlight Theatre (49-minute video)

Produced by Canadian astronomy instructor and astrophotographer Robert Dick, this video introduction to the night sky could be just the ticket for anyone eager to learn how to recognize and locate the major constellations and celestial objects. Remarkable wide-angle 16mm movie sequences of the night sky taken at a dark rural-Ontario location meld into a speeded-up view showing the stars’ daily and annual motions. It’s a technique that successfully goes beyond the static diagrammatic depictions offered by most books and sky charts. This could be especially useful for teachers or anyone looking for a unique instructional aid to stargazing. The rest of us can simply sit back and enjoy the view.

The narrator points out constellation shapes and locations and describes the objects most likely to be of interest in binoculars or small telescopes. Graphic overlays periodically pop up to trace constellation shapes, and bits of mythological lore reveal the fabled characters behind the names. The focus is on “fixed” objects—stars, nebulas and star clusters. That excludes the Moon and planets, but comets, meteors and auroras are covered briefly.

An Educator’s Supplement prepared by Dick (an astronomy instructor at Ottawa’s Carleton University for 15 years) offers a selection of classroom discussion topics, questions and answers and an activity list. Considering how difficult it is to take extended movie sequences of the night sky, this video is a unique contribution to astronomy education.

Review by Christine Kulyk

The Holographic Night Sky

By Kenneth Hewitt-White (Somerville House Publishing)

Attractive 3-D holographic images of eight constellations form one part of this neat package of stargazing tools for youngsters. The main component of the guide is a book, Night Sky Navigator, and a booklet, Night Sky Observer’s Handbook, which together provide all the essential information and charts a beginner needs for successful nighttime constellation and planet identification. Hewitt-White provides predictably lively, accurate text and charts. He wisely uses various levels of charts, from all-sky to selected-sky areas, to lead young enthusiasts step-by-step into the night sky. (Be sure to test the flashlight before purchase; my review unit was DOA.)

The Messier Objects

By Stephen James O’Meara (Cambridge/Sky Publishing)

In the year since its release, Steve O’Meara’s The Messier Objects has become the favourite M-object reference for many observers. Charles Messier was an 18th-century comet hunter, but it is his list of 110 deep-sky objects—what he called “embarrassing” objects that resembled comets—that brought him enduring fame. Most of the sky’s deep-sky treasures are on his list. O’Meara has supplied at-the-telescope sketches, photographs, guide charts and background essays—everything a good deep-sky tourist needs. He used a 4-inch f/5 refractor for his observations. After reading the book, you will gain a new appreciation for what a small telescope can do in the hands of an expert. This is a high-quality work of lasting value.

The New Solar System, 4th Edition

Edited by J. Kelly Beatty, et al. (Cambridge/Sky Publishing)

This lavishly illustrated 420-page volume is, without question, the best solar system book available today. It’s authoritative, up-to-date (early 1999) and comprehensive and is written in accessible language. The depth of treatment is outstanding. For example, 36 pages are devoted just to Jupiter’s moons. Planetary rings get 20 pages, and so it goes. No aspect of planetary science and exploration remains uncovered, and everything is illustrated. If we were giving out astronomy-book-of-the-year awards, this would be the top contender—a superb reference that garners our highest recommendation.

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide (two volumes)

By George Robert Kepple and Glen W. Sanner (Willmann-Bell)

Roughly once a decade, a deep-sky reference work like this appears on the amateur-astronomy scene. Virtually every nebula, star cluster, galaxy, double star and variable star visible in a small or medium-sized telescope (up to 8-inch aperture) is described in these two handsomely produced volumes. Many of these objects are also included in the 431 finder charts or displayed in the 446 photographs found throughout. More than 800 “eyepiece impressions” show the visual appearance of the primary target objects as well as the field around them. The layout has the constellations grouped by season, a format that many observers should find convenient. The Night Sky Observer’s Guide will likely become a principal reference for many deep-sky observers.

The Runaway Universe: The Race to Find the Future of the Cosmos

by Donald Goldsmith (Perseus Books)

The astonishing discovery in 1998 that the universe is not just expanding but is accelerating in its expansion came as a shock to most cosmologists—and to fans of cosmology. Don Goldsmith’s book is all about this discovery and its implications. An astrophysicist by training and a science writer by profession, Goldsmith leaps right in to provide solid background and up-to-date facts on the state of cosmology as of late 1999. If you are new to astronomy, you might want to try a less challenging cosmology tutor, such as Kitty Ferguson’s Measuring the Universe (Walker). But for the armchair cosmology buff, this is first-rate stuff from an experienced author.

The Southern Sky Guide, 2nd Edition

By David Ellyard and Wil Tirion (Cambridge)

When asked to recommend a star atlas for someone leaving on a trip to the southern hemisphere, I have always done so with less than full enthusiasm. The atlases in question were either too superficial or too detailed or flawed in some other way, in my opinion. Now, at last, here’s one that is just right for the travelling astronomer. The Southern Sky Guide has two sets of charts: a set of 24 all-sky charts for the entire year to fifth magnitude and a set of more detailed charts to magnitude 6.5 that carve the southern sky into 20 sectors. Each of these 20 comes with a convenient facing-page descriptive list of the major deep-sky objects. All charts are oriented to be right side up for the observer in Australia, New Zealand and other southern destinations. As always, Wil Tirion’s cartography is clear and accurate, setting the standard in star atlases.

The Universe in a Nutshell

By Stephen Hawking (Bantam)

After riding the best-seller lists for years with his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking is back on the charts with this new popular-science offering. Hawking admits in the foreword that the earlier book “was not easy going,” and he therefore decided to write something “that might be easier to understand.” I was pleased to see the great man himself make this admission. I gave Brief History an unfavourable review because I thought most readers would have a rough time getting past Chapter Two.

The new Hawking book, however, is entirely different in both appearance and content. The most obvious and welcome change is the beautiful and highly original illustrations lavished on almost every page. As for the text, Hawking has clearly decided not to overload the reader this time. Each chapter is essentially a self-contained essay that I think most SkyNews readers would find comprehensible and enlightening. Subjects covered include general relativity, quantum theory, black holes, time travel and a provocative chapter entitled “Our Future: Star Trek or Not.”

Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Atlas

By Tirion, Rappoport, Remaklus (Willmann-Bell)

When it was first published 15 years ago, this magnificent atlas, which includes all 280,000 stars down to magnitude 9.8, caused a sensation among amateur astronomers. Now, it has been significantly improved. New features include 26 selected close-up maps to magnitude 11, a sixth-magnitude finder atlas to guide the user smoothly into the main maps and an improved layout whereby two charts on facing pages are two halves of a single chart, so the eye can move seamlessly across each two-page spread. (The original atlas had an awkward layout that did not allow this.) Hundreds of additions and corrections have been incorporated into the charts themselves, many based on improved Hipparcos satellite data that became available in the late 1990s. Besides being fascinating to thumb through, the charts plot virtually everything your telescope can show you outside the solar system. More than 30,000 deep-sky objects are plotted: galaxies, nebulas, clusters, variable stars, and so on. Each of these is annotated in a companion volume, Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Field Guide, which lists data such as object type, position, brightness and a wealth of additional information.

Observers who already own the older editions should seriously consider upgrading to this exquisite easier-to-use atlas format. Ideal for the private or club observatory, this atlas will be a treasured possession for any enthusiastic telescopic observer.