Book 199: Measuring the Cosmos by D. H. Clark and M. D. H. Clark

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Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe by David H. Clark and Matthew D. H. Clark

Published in 2004 by Rutgers University Press

Finished reading on January 24th, 2016

Rating: 8/10

If you’re interested in how exactly scientists have come to understand the size and distances in our Universe, then this is a great book to read, as it starts from the beginning and gets to almost the present day in a speedy fashion without delving into the biographies of the various connected scientists for too long.

In the book you can find out who tried to measure stellar parallax and why some were more fortunate than others in doing so, how astronomers figured out that there are other galaxies and how big ours is and you get all the way through the competing big bang and steady theory to the inflation, dark matter and dark energy.

The authors don’t go into too much detail, but if you want to read more, you’ll find a helpful bibliography at the end of the book.

I did enjoy rushing through the book more as a reminder. At some point I did feel as if I’ve read this book before, but I’m sure that it’s just because of the same topic that you can come across in several books about the history of cosmology.

If you’ve never read anything about the history of cosmology, this book would be a great start if you don’t mind that it was published twelve years ago.

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Book 197: First Magnitude by James B. Kaler

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“First Magnitude: A Book of the Bright Sky” by James B. Kaler
First published in 2012  by World Scientific Publishing Company

Finished reading on January 22, 2016
Rating: 7/10

I first spent a Sunday at work reading this book and getting through the parts about planets and getting into the brightest stars, but then it took me two weeks to get back to it and finish reading the book in a total of two sittings.

The book covers all the brightest phenomena you might chance across in the night (and sometimes day) sky starting with the obvious planets, stars etc and also giving the reader an idea about what magnitude in brightness in case of stars and planets actually means and when is a star first magnitude and when second and so forth.

In case of the objects mentioned in the book, you get a bit of information about it’s nature, position in the sky when applicable and when it’s best to observe.

It’s quite a straightforward book without detours to obscure topics and sticks to the title. By the end of the book you’ll be left wondering when you’ll get to see a bright comet, nova or supernova yourself.

I found it quite enjoyable read, I wasn’t surprised by it and didn’t get too much new information, but it’s good as a reminder of what you should know about brightest objects if you’re into observing the sky.

Book 189: The Haunted Observatory by Richard Baum

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The Haunted Observatory by Richard Baum

Finished reading some time last week before going to a new college.

Rating: 7.5/10

This book is one of several that I’ve had in my wishlist on several bookstore websites for years (probably three years), but because it seems more as if it just fun tales and anecdotes, then it isn’t really a highly needed reading, or is it?

Do you learn something new? Yes. Is it something new that you can put into a random chat with a stranger at an observatory? Unlikely – it’s rather specific in it’s scope by dealing with observations that at the time seemed like difficult to explain with physics (or in some cases – biology), but turned out to have quite decent explanations.

If you’re thinking that you’ll find aliens in this book – you won’t. However you’d see that there are observations that’ll take lots of time to find an explanation, and that sometimes you can observe something that should be there, but isn’t physically possible to see with your equipment. Or how you can observe locusts or seeds and be very confused because that’s not normally what you’d expect to see.

I did find the book very interesting, and very well researched, and I hadn’t read or heard any of these curious stories beforehand, so it was quite fun – you do meet quite a few of famous astronomers (if you know your history of astronomy, if not, well the astronomers in the book were mostly famous).

I think you have to have a specific interest in curious observations to fully appreciate this book, or at least a firm footing in astronomy because otherwise it’d take a lot of time to get the point why something or other doesn’t make sense.

Lovely book. I’m glad I read it.

Book 182: Black Hole by Marcia Bartusiak

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Black Hole by Marcia Bartusiak

Finished reading on July 4th, 2015

Rating: 10/10

Black holes are some of the most fascinating astronomical objects for the general public, and they do come up quite often in popular culture (think Interstellar…). Bartusiak’s “Black Hole” brings the history of the idea and the basic physics (or as much as scientists know about the laws of physics governing black holes) to the general reader in a fun romp through centuries of scientist thinking about the possibility of an object with such huge mass that even light would not get out.

The last time I read about black holes was in October of last year, when I also wrote a review of Caleb Scharf’s “Gravity’s Engines”. Then as now, I wasn’t altogether interested in black holes – it’s something to do with their popularity and the fact that more than 50% of questions I get at work from children are about black holes. Anyway, despite my dislike for black holes, I find myself once again enjoying a book on the topic enough to rate it with the highest 10 points. Maybe it’s just that I like how well organized and systematic the book is and how you find out more about some astronomers and physicists you might have heard of but wouldn’t connect with black holes.

Also knowing that there are great experiments such as LIGO running to get observational proof for the existence of black holes, makes the reading highly interesting, as there is a repeating theme in almost all books about a specific type of object in astronomy – someone suggests the idea quite early on (not astronomically early, but considering history of science), and everyone thinks that nature is unlikely to create such folly, and then as ideas are gathered and the laws of physics are understood better, it starts to seem less and less unlikely until the eventual discovery of it… right? ( I do hope extraterrestrial life will end up being one of those types of topics…)

One thing that I like the most, ofcourse is, when an idea is considered so outlandish, that scientists try to prove that such a thing just simply can’t exist, as was the case with black holes. And that is basically what you can read about in the book in great detail.

In short: the book is excellent, nothing like Caleb Scharf’s book although the topic is partly the same. And you don’t need to know a lot of physics or higher mathematics to fly through it in a couple of sittings.

Book 181: The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Finished reading on July 1st, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I picked this book up because of New Horizons approach to Pluto and because I’d want to understand the whole hullabaloo around Pluto’s status change.

The book was interesting, but if you take a side – pro planet Pluto or pro dwarf-planet Pluto, it’ll feel as if you’re in an argument here. And it just feels silly to me. I think it might have to do with me living in Eastern-Europe and Pluto being discovered by an American – my feelings can be put together into one word – “meh”. So reading this book was ok, you do find out more about the situation and the discovery of Pluto and who were supporting Pluto to stay a planet, but you don’t really find out much about Pluto as such (but we will in about a week, right?).

It would be interesting to know what some other people thought of this book or just the topic of planetary status – would you have liked Pluto to remain a planet? Does it even matter when scientists decide that one thing is something else?

Book 175: Beyond by Chris Impey

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Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey

Finished reading on June 6th, 2015

Rating: 10/10

If you’re even just a tiny bit interested in or intrigued by space travel then this is definitely a must read that grips with it’s wide scope and fast pace and won’t leave you resenting mathematical equations you don’t want to concentrate on, as there are no ( in fact there’s E=mc2, but that’s all and it isn’t explained) equations you need to pay much heed to.

The book starts with the past and ends up looking far into the future. In the beginning you get a glimpse into the space race between the US and the Soviet Union and even before that into the history of rocketry (don’t worry, you won’t have to understand rocket science to read this part!).

After the first few chapters of bits about history we get to the present and get an overview of basically who’s up and coming on the space scene – how NASA and Roscosmos are faring and how the Chinese are catching up and possibly might lead the way back to the Moon, but you also get to read about the major players in commercial spaceflight and about the people behind it – Burt Rutan, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to name the major players.

At about the middle you get to the prospects for future – is it likely humankind will colonize the Moon or Mars and how can we get there and how would terraforming work anyway? The book dips into technologies that aren’t yet feasible, and also looks at some other interesting topics/problems the future might hold – is there life on other planets? Has humankind survived the most crucial and dangerous part of it’s evolution or is it still ahead of us?

“Beyond” is an excellent book both for it’s choice of content and for the writing – it’s simple enough yet not too basic and the topics follow in a logical order and fast enough so even when you don’t particularly care for history or SETI or any of the smaller topics covered, you’ll be through with it soon enough anyway.

Book 168: The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell

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The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell
Finished reading on April 29th, 2015
Rating: 9/10

If you’re one of those people who might have heard of the Voyager missions in passing – maybe while reading up on planets on Wikipedia, or in an astronomy book, you’re most likely to think that the Voyagers are history – they were launched such a long time a go and they’re literally far gone.

However this book gives a different perspective to it. Yes, the probes were launched in 1977 – a long time ago for me, but the book brings to life the whole “feel” of the missions, as you read about the teams behind Voyagers. That is something that I very much appreciated while reading this book, that it gives it a human perspective. Does a spacecraft or telescope make discoveries? No, no matter how much we might anthropomorphize the spacecrafts in use, they are still just tools (Believe me, it’s difficult to write, I’m as likely as the next nerd to consider my telescope’s feelings or think that my computer is being moody when it’s not responding), that are used by people to do a job.

In The Interstellar Age you get to live through all the planetary encounters, and what’s fascinating is, that you see it through the eyes of the author who got a chance to be there when the data from those encounters reached Earth. That in itself isn’t maybe spectacular, but what is, is that you get the point of view of someone who appreciates the missions and the work and data, while not having a large hugely important role to play at the time.

I enjoyed this book a lot, having read S. J. Pyne’s “Voyager” a couple of years before, it wasn’t all new to me, but a lot of it was – maybe I’d forgotten a lot of what I’ve read about the missions before (there’s a tiny chance of that happening), but it was interesting to read. Especially reading about how the golden record came about and reaching termination shock. Also I liked the authors last points that he made in the book – that the Voyager spacecrafts are probably going to outlast humankind and as such are in a way a monument to it, and all the other spacecraft that leave the Solar system are as well, and it is a somewhat poignant realization.

Just to think that maybe it would eventually encounter life, and some kind of life form will hear the sounds of Earth and see the pictures, when maybe there’s been a runaway greenhouse effect on the planet and all life here has died – then the spacecraft are in a way a tiny blip of a description of an artwork that was destroyed….

Ok, but back to the book – you do find out what was discovered during the Voyager missions and learn more about the people who worked then and now with it.

Book 162: Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

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Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

Finished reading on January 17th, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I was searching for a book about solar eclipses that would be manageable in length. This book was one the first results in a search and hence the one I turned to.

My interest in solar eclipse books comes from the fact that in March of this year there will be a partial solar eclipse visible where I live and I had to do some research on the related mythology for work.

The book was a quick read with many interesting topics – in addition to myths and legends, that I was mainly after, there’s also talk about the science and history of eclipse observations and what humankind has found out thanks to solar eclipses – all quite fascinating, as previously I knew only about observations of the corona and the search for a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury and of-course the famous observational proof for Einstein’s General theory of Relativity. But it turns out there are more!

For those more practically minded -the book introduces safe ways for observing and photographing a solar eclipse and gives ideas about what kind of equipment you need and also how to later process your images.

And a book about solar eclipses wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the past solar eclipses and the ones coming up in the next twenty or so years, so you can plan your vacations a bit. For Americans – there will be a total solar eclipse visible in 2017 in some of the states, in the others it’ll be partial. Unfortunately for my location, the next total eclipse is in 2126, so I’ll actually have to go chasing the shadow of the Moonmyself, to see a total one in my lifetime. Good to know 🙂

Though there was something disturbing by the end – although it is mentioned so many times in the book, how extraordinary seeing the totality is, and how you can’t express it in words and can’t really capture the emotions in photographs or on video, at some point I did catch myself thinking “meh, just the Moon in front of the Sun and the sky is dark… big deal” So obviously it is necessary that I’d actually see it myself, otherwise I’ll be as any person who’s never seen Saturn through a telescope and would just shrug about seeing a planet that is so beautiful and so far away yet visible through two correctly shaped pieces of glass in a tube….

So possibly that is what I came away with – you have to see it to actually understand it better.

Book 161: The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

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The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

Finished reading on January 6th, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Nicolaus Copernicus, a 16th century astronomer showed that the Sun is in the centre of the Solar System, and the Earth only goes around it, hence joining the other planets and in some ways losing its importance as a special place.

Discoveries in later centuries have shown that there’s barely anything special about the Earth’s location in the Universe – we circle around a rather average star (although more massive than 75% of other stars, but still a dwarf star) in a rather average spiral arm of a giant galaxy, the like of which are numerous in the Universe.

But if you leave all that aside, there seems to be something that might make Earth a tiny bit special – it’s the only place thus far that we know of that has life.

In “The Copernicus Complex”, Scharf takes a look at exoplanets and the search for life and the mathematics that might possibly give us an estimate as to whether or not we are alone – as soon as we get some more data points.

The book goes through several topics – biology, statistics and astronomy and manages to show how the Copernican Principle – the idea that we don’t occupy a special time or place in the Universe is at the same time wrong and right.

I found the book dipping into some interesting themes – such as celestial mechanics and how although we can predict the motions of planets around the sun in the near future and past, we can’t do so for millions of years hence. Another was the look at how maybe we exist in a special time, when it is (or so it seems) possible to correctly characterize the Universe – it’s age and size – whilst billions of years hence when the Universe keeps expanding, life on a planet in some far distant future planet, might look at the sky, and not see anything else besides their own galaxy.

In general it was a very enjoyable read, especially because of the wide array of themes covered.

If you’ve read Scharf’s previous popular science book, “Gravity’s Engines“, the style is quite different, but in a good way, as the topics aren’t really similar anyway, but I’m sure you’d enjoy reading “The Copernicus Complex”.

Book 156: Origins by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith

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Origins by Neil Degrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith

Finished reading on December 3rd, 2014

Rating: 9/10

“Origins” talks about the beginning of everything – from the Big Bang and how the Universe came to being to how galaxies and stars formed, how planets began and how might life have evolved – all that in about three hundred pages filled with rather easy and fascinating writing by Neil Degrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith.

The book is well set up and follows a certain logic going from cosmology all the way to astrobiology in the end introducing theories that try to explain how astronomical objects form and evolve and in some cases also inform us about we don’t know yet.

I thought the book went into great detail for example in case of stars and their evolution, not a lot of books would mention how the ages of stars can be determined, but “Origins” did and it did it well, which made me wonder why I hadn’t come across it in some other books before – maybe because it’s a specific method…

I’d really suggest reading it if you haven’t before – it doesn’t require a great understanding of mathematics, but there are a few mentions of Greek letters that might confuse the reader, although they’re explained in the book.

Well worth the time I spend reading it.