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Astronomy Adventures and Vacations - Timothy Treadwell ****

If you’re into healthy outdoor pursuits (and I mean the Great Outdoors, not your backyard), you won’t have any trouble thinking of exciting ‘adventures and vacations’ to indulge in. But what if you’re a naturally sedentary science geek (like this reviewer)? If you’ve ever struggled for a reason to get yourself out of the house, this book could be just what you need.

The book’s title immediately conjures up a number of standard images – a luxury cruise to the southern hemisphere taking in the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, an excursion to the far north to view the Aurora Borealis, or that ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to some obscure part of the globe to witness a total solar eclipse. All those things are covered, of course, but so are a lot of less obvious – and significantly cheaper and easier – activities.

The book lists numerous space-related tourist attractions, from museums and NASA visitor centres to working observatories that are open to the public. There are also more historical sites than you might expect, ranging from Herschel’s house and Galileo’s tomb all the way back to Stonehenge and Meteor Crater in Arizona. Then there are the various regular trade shows and events you can go to – not just to ogle a load of high-end telescopes you can’t afford, but perhaps to get your photograph taken with an astronaut, or purchase a piece of meteorite.

The book doesn’t ignore genuine adventures, either – although sadly the best ones are going to cost you a four-to-five figure sum. You can book a trip to the ‘edge of space’ in a Soviet-era fighter plane, or a zero-gravity taster on board a Vomit Comet. Slightly cheaper is a personalised tour of the cosmonaut training centre in Star City, near Moscow – you can do that one, with all the frills (like trying on a real spacesuit), for less than a thousand euros.

When I first read the blurb for this book, I assumed it was written by a US-based author, so I was worried it might be too US-centric for my tastes. As it turns out, however, Timothy Treadwell is a fellow Brit, and he’s done a commendable job of catering to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The result is probably 50/50 between the United States and the rest of the world – which I suspect (at the risk of stereotyping) is a more equitable balance than a US author would have managed. My home county of Somerset, for example, gets three mentions in the book – which is three more than I was expecting.

By its nature, this is more a work of reference than a book that’s meant to be read through from cover to cover (a point the author makes in his preface). That brings me on to my one real criticism of it. The chapters are arranged thematically, but the material within each chapter tends to be haphazard. Three consecutive paragraphs may relate to three completely different geographic locations. I would have welcomed a bit of help here – for example by giving the paragraphs inline headings, or by highlighting the place-names in bold type. Similarly, a geographical gazetteer (or even maps) at the end of the book would have been a useful addition.

Those minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively well-researched book on a fascinating and unique subject (and I almost forgot to mention – it’s lavishly illustrated, with colour photographs on virtually every page). Definitely recommended for anyone who’s interested in astronomy and looking for an excuse to get out and about!

Paperback:  

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Review by Andrew May

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