Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Cosmos Close-Up

by Giles Sparrow


The orthodox tone to adopt when talking about the wider cosmos is one of awestruck wonderment. Ideally this should be done whilst posing on a mountaintop and talking at half speed about the magnificence of it all. If you can fall to your knees struck dumb once in a while, bonus points. However if you want your astronomy without the trappings of pretentious professors and cultish star-worship, there's Cosmos Close-Up. This offers a just-the-facts tour of the sights of the universe, featuring pictures from some of the most powerful modern telescopes as well as space probes.

The book is ordered roughly from near to far objects, starting with satellite images of Earth and moving out to the wider solar system. It looks at asteroids, moons and Kuiper Belt objects like comets as well as the planets. Although the planets and moons themselves may be familiar to most of us, the images of them are remarkably clear. The text sometimes reads like a school textbook, presenting fairly basic information in bite-sized chunks. Quite a few of the objects in the solar system feature variations on a theme of craters and pock-marks, so this part of the book is necessarily a bit samey.

Things get more interesting when the book deals with The Milky Way and beyond. There are awe-inspiring and beautiful images of nebulae and star clusters in our galaxy. Many of these images are false colour, illuminating the images that are taken in spectrums invisible to the naked eye. This gives us a much deeper insight into what is going on in the cosmos. Further out, there are images of starbirth and other galaxies. Looking into the depths of space also means looking back in time, so this tells us more about the evolution of stars and of the universe as a whole. At the extreme limit of the range of telescopes objects become fuzzy blurs once again, although it's these tantalisingly indistinct features that are the most fascinating of all. The book mentions neutron stars, pulsars, gravitational lensing, and black holes, but these are things that are either difficult or impossible to get a good image of.

This is a very accessible book, and its emphasis on detailed pictures makes it an easy read. It's almost a coffee table book. However it's also somewhat dry. The vast scale of the stars and planets makes this a humbling subject to read about, but I do think the author relies too much on that sense of awe to interest readers. Whilst pictures of strange planetary nebulae or the Crab Nebula's central pulsar have the necessary attraction, tables of statistics and plain facts don't. Just because the universe is made up of mostly non-living matter doesn't meant that its story must be told without spirit, passion, or even the odd joke. Visually Cosmos Close-Up is a blazing spectacle of drool-worthy shininess, but whilst the text is clear it left me a little cold.

2nd September 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books


If you like this, try:

Knocking On Heaven    

Knocking On Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall
From particle physics on the tiniest scales to the most awe-inspiring cosmology, and modern experiments that could be on the verge of cracking open the secrets of the universe.

Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries cover    

Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
A collection of essays on the cosmos that spans the birth and death of the universe and much of the excitement in between.

3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson