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Asteroid Hunters – Carrie Nugent ****

If a book of this title had been written fifty years ago, it would have been a history book – and probably a rather dull one. There was a brief craze for asteroid hunting in the early nineteenth century when they were first discovered, but the excitement wore off when people realised they were (a) boringly small and (b) boringly numerous. 'Formerly, the discovery of a new member of the solar system was applauded as a contribution to knowledge; lately it has been considered almost a crime,' as Carrie Nugent quotes one scientist as saying in 1912. Over the next few decades, the astronomical action moved to bigger and more exotic things, like galaxies, quasars, black holes and the Big Bang.

Then, towards the end of the 20th century, asteroid hunting came back into fashion. A significant factor was the realisation that, unlike almost any other astronomical object (comets are the other obvious exception), they have more than academic interest for the inhabitants of Earth. A large one – say a kilometre across – would have a catastrophic effect if it crashed anywhere on the planet, but even a much smaller impact could easily destroy a city if it scored a direct hit. It would be a natural disaster comparable to an earthquake or volcanic eruption – with the difference that, in principle at least, an asteroid collision is 100% predictable.

The catch is that you need to spot the asteroid in advance, and calculate its orbit – which is where the modern-day asteroid hunters come in. Carrie Nugent is one of them – working not with a ground-based optical telescope but the orbiting infrared observatory NEOWISE. This is one of those short (100-page) TED books, but she easily covers all the main bases: what asteroids are, how they are spotted – and what we could do if we found one heading for Earth.

With any book written by a practitioner in the subject, you know it’s going to be authoritative – but you also worry that it may be overly technical, and perhaps not that well written. So this book comes as a pleasant surprise. Nugent is a natural science communicator, writing in a chatty and engaging style with lots of vivid metaphors and similes. Even more remarkable, she manages to explain how asteroids move in their orbits, and how telescopes work at different wavelengths, without letting on that she’s talking about physics. That makes it a perfect book for inquisitive 12-year-olds – or anyone else who wants to know the basic facts without being blinded by science.

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Review by Andrew May

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