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Asteroids: Clifford Cunningham ***

Why is someone going to buy a glossy, large-format book with the one-word title ‘Asteroids’? The obvious reason is that asteroids are a hot topic these days, both as the destination for several recent space probes – including high-profile sample return missions Hayabusa 2 and OSIRIS-REx – and with a multitude of ongoing searches for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that may threaten a devastating collision with our planet. If you’re anything like me, those are sufficient incentives to pick up a book like this – and, if you’re anything like me, you may be disappointed with what you find inside. It’s not that those topics are absent, but they’re deeply buried in historical material the reader is likely to find much less exciting.

Clifford Cunningham, on the other hand, quite clearly does find this material exciting. A historian of astronomy who’s specialised in asteroids for over 30 years, his discussions of, say, the discovery of Ceres and the coining of the term ‘asteroid’ draw heavily on his own research, delving down into far more depth than you’d normally see in a popular account. This is in the first of the book’s five chapters, which deals with the history of asteroids in the early 19th century – another occasion when they were a ‘hot topic’, with animated debates as to their nature and relationship to the planets.

After the initial excitement wore off, and more and more asteroids were discovered, their interest to astronomers took a nose dive. It simply became a matter of mapping and classifying them – an enterprise with a similar niche appeal to train-spotting, but one that Cunningham describes at great length in his second chapter. By the third chapter we’re finally approaching more modern territory, in the form of NEOs and impact events – but even this chapter opens with a 19th century history lesson, about the now-discredited theory that the asteroids are the remains of a former planet that orbited between Mars and Jupiter.

Then we’re back to history again in what I have to admit was my favourite chapter. During the period when asteroids were in the astronomical doldrums – the early and mid 20th century – they acquired a new centre-of-gravity in the pages of science fiction, where they made an exotic locale for pirates, space miners and strange life forms. This entertaining but entirely imaginary side to asteroids is the subject of Cunningham’s fourth chapter – before he finally comes up to date with an account of real-world space missions in the fifth and final chapter.

The book’s core audience is probably less the typical popular science reader than the dedicated history of science buff – who will find plenty of insightful stuff in it. But even if you’re only interested in state-of-the-art developments, you can always flick through the pages focusing on just those bits. To be honest, I suspect that’s what publishers of these glossy, highly illustrated books expect, anyway.

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Review by Andrew May

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