Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…