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Stargazer’s Almanac 2017 – Bob Mizon et al ****
* UPDATED * To 2017 edition
If your idea of an almanac is a thick old book full of folk wisdom (‘If ye plant in October, your crops will fall over’), phases of the moon and tide times, you’ll only get one thing right about this almanac – it does contain phases of the moon. But the Stargazer’s Almanac is much more.
The format is one of a large month-by-month calendar, but instead of having spaces to write in when you take the dog to the vets, the children to the cinema or vice versa, it has two big spreads of the horizon, looking North and looking South on the 15th of the month at 10pm GMT from a UK viewpoint. With this in hand you should be able to explore the night sky and sort out Andromeda from Perseus. As well as constellations it shows the positions of planets, points out interesting stars, and, yes, shows the phase of the moon through the month.
After the charts there are a couple of pairs of pages of information, as additional reading. This year, we get a page on the astronomer Charles Messier, one on the 'great American eclipse one 2017 (handy if you can get there) and a regular feature on the effects of street lights and light pollution general. But these are a minor addition - the important thing is the maps. I really felt that with this in hand I could find my way around the sky as I never have before. I can spot a couple of constellations and three planets, but with the help of the almanac, much more of the sky opens up.
I have now seen several of these almanacs and I continue to be slightly disappointed with the production values – the almanac is not particularly cheap, but the paper is matt, quite dull in appearance (probably very eco-friendly). On the plus side there's a metal rim on the hanging-up hole, so it's unlikely to get damaged. And there could have been more help on what you do if it’s not 10pm on the 15th of the month, though to be fair there is a bit of guidance, but more handholding would have been appreciated.
As it is, though, this is a really valuable asset to the amateur astronomer and a good gift for anyone with even the slightest interest in the stars. It’s the kind of thing that over time is likely to be pushed out by smartphone and iPad apps like SkyView, but it does have the advantage that you can still sit and enjoy it on a wet Tuesday afternoon, and it's much more decorative than that old Abba calendar.
Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.
The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …
What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.
Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…
I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.
I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.