The 12 books of Christmas 2016

Still in a pickle as to what to buy the astronomer or space fan in your life, or perhaps looking for a good read to take you away from the festive hubbub? Look no further than our pick of the top 12 books that should be on your Santa list this Christmas, selected from the past year's monthly reviews in BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

UK astronaut Tim Peake takes time out for some background reading, tackling Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, after which Peake's Principia mission was named.
Credits: ESA/NASA


The Right Kind of Crazy

Adam Steltzner with William Patrick





Landing a rover on Mars is hard. The planet is anywhere between 55-400 million km away, it’s orbiting the Sun at more than 80,000 km/h and your spacecraft is travelling at 20,000 km/h.

In The Right Kind of Crazy the man in charge of landing the Curiosity rover on Mars, engineer Adam Steltzner, gives a unique insight into what it takes to lead a successful NASA mission. From how the team approached the design of the unique Sky Crane - which delivered the heaviest rover in the history of space exploration to Mars’s surface unscathed - to how they solved the engineering problems that faced them at every turn, such as melting heat defence shields and exploding parachutes.

The most interesting moments are when Steltzner describes how at the 11th hour the team discovered an anomaly that could have sent the rover plummeting into the Martian atmosphere at the wrong angle. A simple error in data entry could be catastrophic, but fixing it could also throw a spanner in the works.

If you want to learn what it’s like to work at NASA, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Jasmin Fox -Skelly is an astronomy and science writer



Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights

Melanie Windridge

William Collins




As a plasma physicist, Melanie Windridge is well placed to describe the science of this fascinating phenomenon: the electrically charged gasses whose properties she explores on a daily basis are also the root cause of the aurorae themselves. But Windridge’s first book is about a lot more than pure science. Part history, part travelogue, it tells the story of the author’s own fascination with these ghostly lights; an obsession that has taken her across the far north of the world not only in search of the finest displays, but also to meet the people who share her fascination, hear the stories the lights have inspired and see the scientific instruments used to understand them.

In Sweden we hear of Melanie’s first encounter with aurorae, while in Norway we learn of Sami, Inuit and other traditional beliefs concerning the haunted sky. The tortured landscape of Iceland inspires a look at the forces behind the lights, while visits to auroral observatories in Canada spur investigations of the relationship between the electrically charged particles of the solar wind, the magnetism of the Sun and Earth and the delicate colours of aurorae.

Melanie meets amateur aurora-hunters in Scotland and gets an insight into the growing area of space weather forecasting, before her final chapter takes her to the Norwegian arctic island of Svalbard for a spectacular view of the interaction between aurorae and the Sun itself.

This book is sure to turn anyone into an aurora obsessive.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Giles Sparrow is a science writer and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society



International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth

David Nixon

Circa Press




Using lavish, breathtaking visuals, including some rarely seen images, Nixon explores the history of space stations by weaving human spaceflight and the evolution of engineering systems, bringing the reader up to speed on what a remarkable engineering feat the ISS is. He immerses the reader in ISS activities and systems, but without belaboring through the countless engineering plots and charts that make up much of ISS development and operations. 

Astronaut Nicole Stott’s introduction shows that astronauts are people like any of us, but with a very specialised job to do in a unique facility orbiting the Earth that sees many sunrises and sunsets every day. The sights and smells, food and noise she describes are the next best thing to being there. She points out that even though designs might vary from Russian capsule to American module, from the homely and cozy to the hardedge technical, the ISS is an integral, complex machine that keeps her crew safe and productive.

This book should be essential reading for a wide audience, from the student to the professional, including those scientists, engineers and policy makers wanting insight into or entering the field of human spaceflight in general, and the ISS in particular.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Madhu Thangavelu is a lecturer in space architecture at the University of Southern California.



15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun

Lucie Green

Viking Books




It is easy to take the Sun for granted, even though we depend on it to stay alive. For astronomers, it is also the only star we can study close up. Lucie Green is not only a world authority on solar physics, but also a TV regular on Stargazing Live and The Sky at Night, with a gift for communicating space science.

Her story opens with a description of what sunlight actually is and how light extends far beyond what one can see. We learn too about the Sun's source of energy, how it was once seen as a ball of fire before it was realised that heat could be produced in other ways, for example rubbing ones hands together.

This is not a dry physics textbook. The history and excitement of discovery, such as how astronomers found out what the Sun is made of, are brought to life by the human stories about the characters involved. Explosive events on the Sun can dramatically impact Earth, but we see how satellites are guarding us at the same time as they uncover the Sun’s secrets.

Green’s friendly and flowing writing makes this one of the most enjoyable books about science you could hope to find.

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Paul Sutherland is a space writer and journalist



The Stars: The Definitive Visual Guide To The Cosmos

Robert Dinwiddie, David W. Hughes, Geraint Jones, Ian Ridpath, Carole Stott, Giles Sparrow

Dorling Kindersley




This lavishly produced book takes the reader on an exquisitely pictorial journey through the Cosmos starting with the Big Bang. Along the way there are excellent explanations of star birth, planetary formation, galaxy formation and star death, all presented in fascinating detail.

The text is heavily augmented by wonderful illustrations at each stage including charts, tables and 3D diagrams to help the reader picture exactly what is going on.

Having described the formation and lives of numerous different celestial objects, the book moves on with a brief history of early sky charts from the dawn of astronomy to now. The celestial sphere and how it relates to the star charts that we use today is clearly explained and this concept is followed by the deconstruction of a beautifully crafted celestial globe into the 88 constellations that make up the entire sky in the form of 3D segments.

The visual content finishes with a brief look at our own Solar System, while an excellent glossary and index complete the book. Is this the definitive visual guide to the cosmos? It’s certainly a beautiful and comprehensive guide that would grace any astronomer’s library.

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Steve Richards is an astroimager and BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Scope Doctor.



Goldilocks and the Water Bears

Louisa Preston





Louisa Preston describes how the hunt for alien life begins on Earth. The ‘Goldilocks’ in the title refers to the 'Goldilocks zone' around a star where it is not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Searching for life as we know it may seem like a narrow point of view, but if the search is broadened to include microbial organisms, then a whole new realm of possibilities opens up. Preston describes how resilient microbes might be able to survive in a surprising number of locations throughout the Solar System, and how this knowledge can be extended to what types of animal life could exist on exoplanets. The logical next step is to search for intelligent life that could be emitting radio signals, and Preston hypothesises over what types of civilisations could exist and why they might prefer to ignore us.

While a lot of the information may already be familiar to readers who have delved into similar books, this one brings it all together nicely in a coherent fashion while also including the most up-to-date research. For readers who are new to astrobiology and looking for an information-packed, easy-to-read book, this is the one.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Amanda Doyle is a freelance science writer and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick.



Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

Mike Massimino

Simon & Schuster UK




At the time of writing, 555 people have been to space and it sometimes seems like nearly all of them have written memoirs. So how does this book by former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino stand out? It helps that Massimino’s 18-year astronaut career was anything but standard: he flew on the final two servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, involving some of the most insanely complex spacewalks ever, to replace equipment that had never been designed with retrieval in mind: some 111 tiny screws needed undoing at one point.

Massimino was the first astronaut to tweet from orbit, with a longstanding interest in public outreach that led to him getting a regular guest gig on The Big Bang Theory. He’s also a longstanding space fan boy: inspired to join the astronaut corps by frequent re-watching of The Right Stuff, he’s clearly never lost sight of the coolness of his job. As a result, his writing has a clear, vivid style. Massimino’s impression of what it feels like to spacewalk, or to be the lone person awake in an orbiting Shuttle, will stay with readers a long time.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Sean Blair writes for the European Space Agency website



Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, Richard J. Gott

Princeton University Press




The origin of this book is a university ‘nonscience major’ course taught by the three authors. Split into three sections, each dominated by one of the authors, the book starts with an introduction to basic physics and the scales of the Universe. The equations are sometimes presented in-line as part of the flow of the text, which assumes some familiarity with the ‘language’ of mathematics. Don’t get me wrong; this is by no means a textbook and the maths is talked through, but the equations would possibly be daunting to readers who were not familiar with them. Having said that, for those comfortable with high school maths the added depth would likely add to the content, although a notepad might be useful to follow along in places!

I can’t think of many topics in an astrophysics degree that aren’t at least touched upon: orbits, the lifecycles of stars, stellar spectra, galaxy rotation, cosmology, black holes, general relativity – the list goes on. There’s even a brief (and somewhat out-of-place) interjection about Pluto’s status and the search for life elsewhere.

The final third is the most conceptually challenging, covering relativity, space-time diagrams and black holes. While I wouldn’t exactly describe it as light reading, it is well written with clear, helpful graphics and glossy pictures accompanying the text.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Dr Chris North is the Odgen Science Lecturer and STFC Public Engagement Fellow at Cardiff University



Destination: Space

Dr Christoph Englert, Tom Clohosy Cole

Wide Eyed Editions




If you were to drive the distance from the Sun to the edge of our Solar System it would take you about 22,000 years, yet light makes the journey in just 20 minutes!

Destination: Space, is full of such amazing facts to grab a child’s imagination. Beautifully illustrated, its colourful layout looks uncluttered yet packs a lot of information into small bite size nuggets. These cover everything from the Big Bang, galaxies, the life of stars, black holes, the Solar System and space exploration to life on other planets. It even manages to touch on dark matter, dark energy, space-time and quantum mechanics.

The explanations and illustrations combine to put complex ideas across clearly, simply and engagingly. Destination: Space has a lovely retro look and is exactly the sort of book I would have loved to get my hands on as a child. It also includes a large double-sided poster with star charts to encourage children to start observing the constellations for themselves.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Jenny Winder is a science writer, astronomer and broadcaster



A Stargazing Program for Beginners

Jamie Carter




As the title suggests, this is a long-term programme covering a full year of viewing the night sky, from naked eye to telescope. Taking each month in turn, the reader is gradually introduced to a range of topics from practical monthly targets to snippets of information, often referred to as ‘mind’s eye observing’.

However, these short bursts of information sometimes feel at odds with what the book is trying to achieve. As a practical guide aimed at beginners, there is a danger of swamping the reader with information they don’t actually need in order to view the night sky. An example occurs in chapter 8 when the topic of exoplanets is discussed at length. Such detail feels unnecessary in a book like this.

This does, though, suit the book’s methodical approach to introducing practical stargazing, building up the reader’s knowledge month-by-month and including practical advice along the way such as basic astrophotography.

We can definitely recommend A Stargazing Program for Beginners to its intended audience, who should be prepared for an amazing year of learning!

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Paul Money is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's reviews editor



100 Things To Know About Space

Alex Frith, Alice James, Jerome Martin

Usborne Publishing




If your kids have ever gazed up at the International Space Station and asked you how fast it’s moving, or how astronauts scratch their noses during spacewalks, this is the book for them.

The cartoons are nicely gender-balanced (important in a children’s book on a traditionally male-dominated subject) and I was pleased to see one of a man in a wheelchair pondering the very beginning of the Universe - not named as Hawking but clearly identifiable as such!

There is no obvious order to the book, for example one page describes the merging of galaxies, the next explains how water is recycled on the ISS. This gives a feeling of constantly discovering new facts on every page, but also means that the experience of reading it can be slightly disorientating. 100 Things to Know About Space is perhaps easier to dip in and out of rather than attempting to read from cover to cover, and that may help it appeal to younger children with shorter attention spans.

Overall, this is a fun choice for inquisitive children to help introduce them to the world of space.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Pippa Goldschmidt is a writer and astronomer



Exploring the Planets: A Memoir

Fred Taylor

Oxford University Press




For over two decades, Taylor was head of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford. Before that, he worked for ten years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Exploring the Planets – A Memoir is his very personal recollection of half a century of exciting planetary science, including many triumphs as well as a number of tragedies.

Taylor is a great storyteller and a skilful writer. His book provides a captivating behind-the-scenes-look at space astronomy, brimming with funny anecdotes but really focusing on the many missions he has been involved with, from the 1978 Pioneer Venus Orbiter (for which Taylor was principal investigator) through great projects like Galileo and Cassini, to more recent endeavours such as Rosetta and ESA’s upcoming Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury. Taylor’s chapter on climate change then brings his expertise on planetary atmospherics back home to our own planet.

Exploring the Planets is a rich and illuminating book – a must-read for everyone interested in planetary science or considering a career in space exploration.

Rating: 4/5

Govert Schilling is an astronomy writer and author


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