Skip to main content

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
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Patrick Moore – The Amateur Astronomer
Hardback:  
Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…