The best astronomy and space books of 2019
Our pick of the top astronomy and space books we reviewed over the past 12 months.
By Iain Todd
December 4, 2019 at 12:43 pm
There is a wealth of books published each year covering all aspects of space, astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology, from practical stargazing to histories of spaceflight, and from the latest burning cosmic questions to beginners’ guides explaining the basic principles of our Solar System, Galaxy and Universe.
In each issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine we pick the best astronomy and space books that have caught our eye that month and send them out to our expert reviewers for full scrutiny.
Below is a list of some of the top space and astronomy books we reviewed in 2019. If you’re on the hunt for a Christmas present to give to an astronomer in your life, or perhaps searching for a good read to escape the festive hubbub, look no further.
- Author Tom Kerss
- Publisher Collins
Our reviewer said: Kerss manages to cover a broad range of nitty-gritty lunar facts, ranging from the phases to the Apollo missions and a practical section on lunar photography using a smartphone or DSLR. The most exciting and informative segment is the ‘Introduction to the Lunar Atlas’, which divides the Moon into 16 sections and includes lunar photographs along with a map for the reader to learn the names of craters and mares. There is a two-page segment on the surface features and the categories they fall into, which ties in nicely with the maps and provides enough information for the observer to identify features on the Moon’s surface. There is much to learn from this instructive and enthusing book, which will appeal to selenophiles everywhere.
Reviewer Katrin Raynor Evans is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the librarian for Cardiff Astronomical Society.
Brief Answers to the Big Questions
- Author Stephen Hawking
- Publisher John Murray
Our reviewer said “How did it all begin? Is there other intelligent life in the Universe? Is time travel possible?” These are just a few of the big questions that Stephen Hawking discusses in his final book. Hawking does not simply give us one-word answers, but walks us through his own thinking and divergences on each subject. The language is easy to follow and each chapter’s length keeps you engaged. In places the book touches on some complicated physics, but you will never feel lost. There are many inspiring parts that will stay with you and shape the way you think about these big questions in the future.
Reviewer Laura Nuttall is a Senior Lecturer in Gravitational Waves at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth
Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos
- AuthorsDavid Dickinson & Frazer Cain
- PublisherPage Street Publishing
Our reviewer said: Authors Dickinson and Cain are here to ease you into astronomy, providing a complex but highly readable guide for amateurs (or even veterans who need a refresher), introducing the night sky and the tools needed to observe it. They introduce us to stargazing, discuss software and equipment to aid our understanding, braving the minefield of choosing the right telescope, the right aperture, the right mount and the right eyepiece. They show us how to build a basic Newtonian refracting ‘scope for under $50. This is a companion for any astronomer at any level, but its main message is that we should not forget to simply revel in astronomy for the awe-inspiring experience that it is.
Reviewer Ben Evans is the author of several books on human spaceflight
Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide
- AuthorJo Dunkley
Our reviewer said: Dunkley takes her readers on a grand tour of space and time, from our nearest planetary neighbours to the edge of the observable Universe. The book follows a well-trodden path, starting with an overview of the history of astronomy and a description of our Solar System. Stellar evolution is next, followed by galaxies, clusters and the mystery of dark matter. The birth, evolution and future of the Universe are discussed in the final chapters. Explanations are always clear, metaphors are to the point and arguments easy to follow. If you feel like refreshing your background knowledge, or are looking for a present for your curious niece or nephew, this little gem certainly won’t disappoint.
Reviewer Govert Schilling is an astronomy writer and author of the book Ripples in Spacetime.
Space Shuttle: A Photographic Journey
- AuthorLuke Wesley Price
- PublisherAmmonite Press
Our reviewer said: The Shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft. Its fleet of five flew 135 times into orbit. The many successful missions were, of course, marred by two tragic accidents that cost the lives of 14 astronauts in 1986 and 2003. Those dreadful events are indeed recalled in this book, but the photos focus on the positive aspects of the Shuttle project. The bulk of the pages are packed with colour images of the Shuttles, from launch preparations through lift-off and orbit, to landing. The book ends with a gallery of individual mission insignia, followed by pages listing key data for each flight. However, it is the splendid collection of Shuttle images that makes this book so special.
Reviewer Paul Sutherland is a space writer and journalist, author of Philip’s Essential Guide to Space
Mars: The Missions That Have Transformed Our Understanding of the Red Planet
- AuthorRod Pyle
- PublisherAndre Deutsch
Our reviewer said: Author and NASA consultant Rod Pyle has written a lot about the history of space exploration, but this book is a masterpiece. Pyle writes about the mission scientists and the emotions felt as they witnessed the first ever landing on the Red Planet. This book not only illustrates the brightest moments from different Mars missions, but also talks about failures and lost spacecraft, spelling out the history of our species’ curiosity with Mars and explorations of its surface. It’s an excellent read, both for those who know a lot about Mars and those who have only recently become fascinated by the Red Planet.
Reviewer Sandra Kropa is a science journalist and writer
Picturing Apollo 11
- AuthorsJL Pickering & John Bisney
- PublisherUniversity Press of Florida
Our reviewer said: Historian JL Pickering and journalist John Bisney’s anthology of rare photographs, Picturing Apollo 11, honours the people who strove against all odds to land a man on the Moon. Only a handful of their chosen images are readily recognisable; most have not been seen before. The book covers January to August 1969, from crew selection to their emergence from quarantine onto the world stage. The authors avoid familiar images in favour of rarer ones, often quirky, including 7-year-old Andy Aldrin trying on his father’s helmet. The book conveys the sense of awe at Apollo’s monumental scale and the photographic clarity is profound.
Reviewer Ben Evans is the author of several books on human spaceflight and is a science and astronomy writer
No Shadow of a Doubt
- AuthorDaniel Kennefick
Our reviewer said: At 2.13 GMT on 29th May 2019 it was exactly 100 years since Arthur Eddington and Frank Dyson stood before their telescopes ready to capture images of an eclipse they hoped would confirm Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The book tells of the lead up to the eclipse expeditions, details the expeditions themselves and looks at the aftermath: how Eddington and Dyson’s results were received at the time and the discussions regarding their validity up until the present day. It also discusses the role of this expedition in making Albert Einstein a household name. This is a fascinating book, full of insight into the relationship between theory and experimental proof.
Reviewer Dr Emily Winterburn is the author of The Stargazer’s Guide: How to Read our Night Sky.
The Secret Lives of Planets
- AuthorPaul Murdin
- PublisherHodder & Stoughton
Our reviewer said: Paul Murdin manages to compress billions of years of Solar System history into fewer than 300 pages, as well as providing a timeline and glossary of both our nearest and furthest neighbours. The details of each object’s classification, rotation, diameter and surface temperatures are given in helpful boxouts so the reader doesn’t get lost in all the information. The Secret Lives of Planets aims to be “a user’s guide to the Solar System”, but it also turns out to be an inspiration to look at the Solar System as a long cosmic journey, and find our place in it.
Reviewer Sandra Kropa is a science journalist and writer
The Crowd & the Cosmos
- AuthorChris Lintott
- PublisherOxford University Press
Our reviewer said: Over ten years ago, The Sky at Night’s Chris Lintott started Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project to classify galaxies. It was an instant success. At present, the Zooniverse encompasses over 70 science projects. In his entertaining book, Lintott describes the origin and evolution of the Zooniverse, with a focus on the astronomy projects, including discoveries like Hanny’s Voorwerp and Tabby’s Star. The real strength of the book is in the accessible description of astronomical research and future big-data facilities like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Once you start reading, his book is hard to put down.
Reviewer Govert Schilling is an astronomy writer and author
Dr Maggie’s Grand Tour of the Solar System
- AuthorDr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
- PublisherBuster Books
Our reviewer said: If you fancy snowboarding off Pluto’s slopes and frozen mountains, experiencing ‘diamond’ rain on Uranus or taking a 20-year plane journey from the Moon to the Sun, you could take a family trip around the Solar System with space scientist and The Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. In her book, aimed at older pre-teen children, a cartoonified Dr Maggie takes readers on an informative journey. It’s beautifully designed, with an appealing layout and plenty of illustrations. Packing in the entirety of the Solar System, its planets, objects, exploratory missions and history in 120 pages aimed at children is no easy task. Aderin-Pocock has made a valiant effort to do so.
Reviewer Shaoni Bhattacharya is a science writer and journalist
Curious Cosmic Compendium
- AuthorMartin Vargic
- PublisherMichael Joseph
Our reviewer said: Which is the biggest and the most massive star in the Universe? Where is it located and when was it born? All the answers to these questions and many more, plus maps of places of universal importance, can be found in this Curious Cosmic Compendium. The author, artist and internet sensation Martin Vargic displays the history and wonders of the Universe in the typically creative way that brought his Miscellany of Curious Maps and Map of the Internet such praise. In more than 100 pages filled with facts and illustrations he takes the reader on a journey through the history of the cosmos.
Reviewer Sandra Kropa is a science journalist and writer
Space: 10 Things You Should Know
- AuthorDr Becky Smethurst
- PublisherOrion Publishing Co
Our reviewer said: Dr Becky Smethurst has a wonderful gift for communicating some extremely exciting but also tough astrophysics in 10 bite-sized essays. If you’d like to know about supermassive black holes, the hunt for exoplanets and the expanding Universe (plus a lot more), then this book is a nice starting point. I really enjoyed the conversational writing style and the divergences that come with this. It made me feel as though Dr Becky was sat next to me. My favourite chapter is the last, which touches on the importance of searching for the unknown knowns. There’s something wonderfully inspiring communicated through the pages, and I closed the book feeling a bit more excited about my own research.
Reviewer Laura Nuttall is a Senior Lecturer in Gravitational Waves in the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth
Dark Matter & Dark Energy
- AuthorBrian Clegg
- PublisherIcon Books
Our reviewer said: In the past few decades, it’s become clear that we have focussed on a mere 5% of the Universe – the rest remains almost entirely unknown. Astronomers divide this mysterious majority into two types of ‘stuff’: dark matter and dark energy. Brian Clegg’s book is a clear and compact look at the current state of knowledge about these twin cosmic mysteries. After an introductory account of the discovery of both phenomena, the first half of the book focuses on dark matter. The second half tackles dark energy, with some basic cosmological groundwork followed by a discussion of dark energy and what it could mean for the future of the cosmos. It’s hard to fault as a brief, easily digestible introduction to some of the biggest questions in the Universe.
Reviewer Giles Sparrow is a science writer and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society
Zwicky: The outcast genius who unmasked the Universe
- AuthorJohn Johnson Jr
- PublisherHarvard University Press
Our reviewer said: Fritz Zwicky is a name most astronomers learn early their careers, due to both his scientific achievements and his combative personality. This biography explores the life of this world-renowned physicist. The book spans an eventful period in world history that formed the backdrop to Zwicky’s astronomy research along with his contributions to the US war effort and rocketry. It includes details of many of Zwicky’s personal encounters, putting his various feuds and confrontations in context. It’s very interesting to read and provides a fascinating insight into a rich, complicated character and his engagement with the world he was part of.
Reviewer Dr Chris North is an Odgen science lecturer and Science & Technologies Facilities Council public engagement fellow at Cardiff University
- AuthorWilliam Sheehan
- PublisherReaktion Books
Our reviewer said: ‘Saturn’ is a detailed exploration of the most well-known of the ringed planets in our Solar System. It is an amazing account of how much we can learn from so little; how, over time, new things slowly reveal themselves, and how many questions we have yet to answer about this infamous giant world. As well as drawings from early observations of the planet, the book features some spectacular images taken by the Cassini orbiter and other missions, which combine with Sheehan’s writing to show how our understanding of Saturn has gradually deepened over the centuries. The book concludes with a detailed guide to observing Saturn in the hope that further monitoring, by both amateur and professional astronomers, will help to reveal the planet’s many remaining secrets.
Reviewer Hannah Wakeford is an astronomer who studies the atmospheres of exoplanets at Space Telescope Science Institute
Handprints on Hubble
- AuthorKathryn D Sullivan
- PublisherMIT Press
Our reviewer said: Penned by America’s first female spacewalker, Handprints on Hubble tells the story of Kathy Sullivan, whose career took her from a pressurised space suit to the highest altitude ever reached by the Space Shuttle. As one of the first women picked by NASA for astronaut training, her memoir mixes autobiography with a solid appreciation of the Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the most important science instrument ever placed into orbit. As a ringside spectator of Challenger, Sullivan’s memories are tinged by tragedy and she remained soberly aware that she might never return from a mission. Behind every scene Hubble itself looms large – “like a beautiful silver gift from Tiffany’s” – whose contribution to understanding our place in the cosmos needs no qualification.
Reviewer Ben Evans is the author of several books on human spaceflight and is a science and astronomy writer.