astronomy

Book review – First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

8-minute read

In the early days of the universe, there was darkness. Until somebody said, “let there be light”? Not quite. In First Light, astrophysicist Emma Chapman introduces you to ongoing research into the first billion years of our Universe and the birth of the first stars. Popular science at its finest, this book challenged me pleasantly but was above all – with apologies for the terrible pun – enlightening.

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Book review – Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

8-minute read

This is the second of a two-part dive into the story of oceans on Earth and elsewhere, following my review of Ocean Worlds. That book gave a deep history of how our oceans shaped Earth and life on it and briefly dipped its toes into the topic of oceans beyond Earth. Alien Oceans is the logical follow-up. How did we figure out that there are oceans elsewhere? And would such worlds be hospitable to life? Those are the two big questions at the heart of this book. If there is one person fit to answer them, it is Kevin Peter Hand, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and their deputy chief for solar system exploration.

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Book review – The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves

6-minute read

Can we predict what aliens will look like? On some level, no, which has given science fiction writers the liberty to let their imagination run wild. On another level, yes, writes zoologist Arik Kershenbaum. But we need to stop focusing on form and start focusing on function. There are universal laws of biology that help us understand why life is the way it is, and they are the subject of this book. If you are concerned that consideration of life’s most fundamental properties will make for a dense read, don’t panic, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a spine-tingling dive into astrobiology that I could not put down.

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Book review – Terrestrial Impact Structures: The TanDEM-X Atlas (2-Volume Set)

7-minute read

When Google Earth first launched in 2001, I, like many others, found myself poring over satellite imagery. Identifying familiar and unfamiliar landmarks always brought a certain thrill, and spotting craters was part of that. But to properly map impact structures, you need a better dataset. The stunningly produced Terrestrial Impact Structures is a large-format atlas that maps all currently accepted ones, plus some likely candidates, and makes for an instant must-have reference work for any geology or astronomy library.

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Book review – Convergent Evolution on Earth: Lessons for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

6-minute read

Planet Earth might just as well be called Planet Water. Not only is our planet mostly ocean, life also started out here. Following his 2011 book Convergent Evolution, palaeobiologist George R. McGhee returns to MIT Press and The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology to expand his examination to oceanic lifeforms, with the tantalising promise of applying the insights gained to astrobiology. I was particularly stoked for this second of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.

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Book review – Finding our Place in the Universe: How We Discovered Laniakea – the Milky Way’s Home

6-minute read

The images that astronomers produce can shape whole generations. Based on the Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, Carl Sagan’s moving speech in Cosmos highlighted how small and insignificant we appear in the vastness of the universe. But we are not alone, being part of the solar system which is part of the Milky way galaxy. And ours is but one of billions, possibly trillions, of galaxies in the universe that, interestingly, are not scattered at random in space. In this compact and engagingly written book, French cosmographer Hélène Courtois shows you the next level up: superclusters. When it was published in 2014, the image of the supercluster to which our galaxy belongs for me was another one of those generation-defining images. It was of such stunning beauty that it stopped me in my tracks. Welcome to Laniakea, our home amidst the stars.

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Book review – Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

6-minute read

Can you have too many books on the same topic? Not four months after the publication of Cosmic Impact in February 2019, which I reviewed earlier this year, Scribner books published Fire in the Sky in June. The former book was written by astrophysicist Andrew May, while Gordon L. Dillow is a newspaper reporter and war correspondent, coming at the subject from a different angle. Despite touching on many of the same events and topics, he provides a wealth of new information in what is a thoroughly researched work of popular science. But first, let’s go to Arizona and turn back our clocks some 50,000 years.

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Book review – Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty-Year History of Space Stations

7-minute read

The recent 50th anniversary of the first moon landing was a reminder of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go. Since humanity’s last visit in 1972, there have been plenty of ambitious plans to return one day or to even land people on Mars. For now, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, they are places that we can visit, yes. But settle? Not yet. How about closer to home though? With Outposts on the Frontier, freelance space historian Jay Chladek takes the reader on a factual fifty-year history of space stations.

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Book review – Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes

When the movie Interstellar was released in 2014, I thought its depiction of a black hole was one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes. And with input from prominent astrophysicist Kip Thorne, there was plenty of science to this piece of science fiction (see The Science of Interstellar). Amazingly, we only had to wait five more years for an actual image of a black hole – or really its event horizon – to be published. But these astounding images have been a long time coming. With Gravity’s Century, science writer Ron Cowen traces the story back to Albert Einstein and provides an accessible and compact overview of the century-long quest in physics to better understand gravity.

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Book review – Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System

Asteroids and comets have a bad reputation. Looking back over the books I have reviewed, they usually come up in the context of impact and destruction. But there are other important reasons to study them and geologist and cosmochemist Natalie Starkey here steps up as their enthusiastic spokeswoman. Whether as frozen time capsules, possible vehicles dispersing the basic chemicals required for life, or even future mining quarries, Catching Stardust champions the importance of scientific research on these celestial objects.

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