Mark Thompson’s book ‘A Down To Earth Guide To The Cosmos’ is a practical guide to astronomy. Hardly surprising as this is what he does on TV. What comes out of this book is also a measure of science and history, so you get far more than just looking up in the skies.
Interspersed between these chapters is a monthly guide to the night skies in the northern and southern hemispheres. Although it would take a year to follow this through from reading to practical here, it is interesting seeing how the constellations change their shapes over the period, subject to the Earth’s movements. If I have to be critical then it’s when Thompson describes specific stars in this text, I wish he’d identified them in the supplied maps to go along with his description of star-hopping to identify their positions. This could easily have been helped with the positions of the planets, especially as Venus and Jupiter are so prominent.
If you want to get more involved in astronomy, Thompson guides you through the cheapest choices like binoculars to more expensive options like those telescope thingies so you don’t over-commit yourself and splash out to expensively. He explains all about focal lengths and what the numbers mean when related to lenses so you at least know what you’re asking for. Probably the most significant thing is not to go for more general shop cheap telescopes as they don’t have the quality to see much. Remember that if your sprogs take up an interest in the subject cos it would save you money in the long run. I suspect it would be a lot easier for family members to group their resources together and get something that will last than that.
You are also taught how astronomers measure distance of all the stars and how even those within a constellation are rarely close to each other. I wonder if these patterns would be different had we know this from the start. I doubt if and when we become space-farers that we would refer to the constellations the same way. Looking now, I do wonder how the constellations were created in the first place. I mean, they must had a lot of imagination at the time to turn them into such shapes from squares and tails hanging from them. Mind you, without telescopes, only the brightest stars could be seen so maybe their vision was far different. As Thompson points out later in the book, brightness has nothing to do with distance so probably illustrates their lack of knowledge as well.
Things I learnt. Did you know that Betelgeuse is Arabic for ‘armpit of the giant’? You can see anything up to 2000 stars in the night sky which is a fraction of the 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. The nearest possible black hole singularity is near the star Eta Cygni. If you want to see/hear the faint echoes of the Big Bang, switch your TV to an unturned channel and watch the ‘snow’. Hands up those of you who thought it was just poor reception?
For the Science Fiction writer, this book becomes an asset as Thompson describes the type of star, their relative size and distance from Earth, which might come in handy if you want a change of venue for your stories.
In many respects, this book isn’t a hefty read but then I don’t think it should be as I suspect readers will use the book as a reference book before going out and looking at the night sky and you wouldn’t want to be bogged down. The writing is fluid and you will certainly know more than when you started. With the growth of interest in astronomy by youngsters, this book will surely be a winner.
(pub: Bantam Press/Transworld. 293 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-07036-9)