Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos – Mark Thompson ***

I got into amateur astronomy at the age of 11, and for a number years took it veryseriously – and like pretty well anyone who does, I bought myself a good guide. I’ve still got it, and I treasure it – it’s Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer. Now Mark Thompson is setting out to do something similar for a new generation, and in reviewing it, I’ve had my Moore book alongside as a touchstone – so this has ended up as a kind of double review.
For those not familiar with Thompson (me included), he apparently appears on the BBC’s early evening magazine show, The One Show and on the BBC’s annual Stargazing Live with the ubiquitous Brian Cox, talking about astronomy. The book is organised in 12 sections, one for each month, with a general information chapter and then star charts for northern and southern hemispheres and a commentary for the month.
When the information chapter keeps to astronomy and the practicalities of it, Thompson is very good. As you might expect, he’s less pedantic and more chatty than Moore writing in 1957 (the book wasn’t new when I bought it!), and he really gets across the enjoyment of getting out there and taking a look at the sky, plus gives good guidance on how to watch meteors (strangely this appears twice), getting the right equipment and a fair amount more. This was solid four star material.
When the information chapters stray into cosmology and physics, Thompson becomes a little more flaky. Of course he’s much more up-to-date on the cosmology than Moore (I assume the 2000 edition is a lot more with it), but I can’t imagine Patrick telling us that Ritter discovered ultraviolet when he noticed that ‘a chemical called sodium chloride’ (i.e. common salt) was turned black by it. I think he means silver chloride.
Thompson also trips up several times on black holes. For example, he tells us that ‘the mass of a black hole is so high even light… is unable to escape.’ This isn’t a matter of mass – in principle you could have a micro black hole with a tiny mass (it just couldn’t form from a star). It’s the extreme curvature of spacetime that stops light getting out, not how big the mass is. His quantum theory is a bit iffy too.
Finally there are the star charts. In Moore’s book these are among a whole host of appendices, which contain loads of fascinating data I used to love poring over as a youth. None of that from Thompson I’m afraid. Moore, rather sensibly doesn’t try to match the map to any particular date. Instead he uses key, easy to find constellations as pointers and builds his maps from these. Thompson gives us Northern hemisphere maps that are only useful to a degree as they stop at the celestial equator. This makes for a strange disconnect with the commentary, as the maps don’t show the whole sky you would see from, say, England. So both January and February’s commentary have a lot to say about Orion – but neither the January or February map shows Orion.
In fact the maps just don’t have enough detail. Moore’s pointer approach means he can dedicated page after page so you can find loads of stars – far more than Thompson ever identifies. Of course you might say with the phone apps and computer planetarium software Thompson mentions and Moore couldn’t even imagine we don’t need maps any more. But I think Moore’s are really useful for getting a working knowledge of the sky – Thompson’s less so.
Overall then, if you want a real astronomer’s guide I would go for the relatively new 2000 edition of Moore’s book. If you don’t really intend to use it and just want to read a bit about astronomy and the cosmos, you could do worse than Thompson’s book. But it’s a shame it wasn’t better. It’s telling that Moore’s book feature’s an astronomical image on the cover (my old edition has a picture of the moon) – Thompson’s, driven by TV-celebrity science, has a picture of him. I know which I’d rather look at.
Mark Thompson – A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos
Patrick Moore – The Amateur Astronomer

Review by Brian Clegg

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