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Book review: “Your Ticket To The Universe – A Guide to Exploring The Cosmos”

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There are essentially two types of “popular astronomy” books. The first type is written very matter-of-factly, quite dryly, no thrills or frills, by an astronomer who knows their subject inside out but maybe hasn’t got much experience of actually talking to non-astronomers about it. They’re essentially “A Beginners Guide to Astronomy” Powerpoint presentations shrunk and printed on paper. Those books are essential, of course, because we absolutely need such reference books to consult at “I just need the facts” moments. Reading them is like sitting in a cavernous lecture hall, in an uncomfortable chair, listening to a knowledgeable but rather cold lecturer talk about the universe, each slide they show crammed full of text, which they then proceed to read out, word for word…

The other type of book is more relaxed, more informal, and takes you on a personal journey of discovery. Reading this type of book is more like listening to a lecture in a small, cosy venue, given by an expert who is supremely comfortable with talking to people about their subject, who is still as fired up about it as they were when they first fell in love with it, if not more so, and whose presentation is crammed full of astronomical information but is presented in a funny and entertaining way which draws you in and refuses to let you go. During such a presentation that famous, cliched lightbulb pings on above your head again and again and again, as you suddenly “get” why this happens, or why that happens.

This is one of those books, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

This book is basically a masterclass in astronomy outreach and education. Its as if the authors got together somewhere and decided to put down on paper The Best Astronomy Outreach Presentation Ever, to show everyone else how to do it. Which might actually have been the case, because the back cover proudly states that the two authors – Kimberley K Arcand and Megan Watzke – have “a combined 25 years of experience working to bring the wonders of the cosmos to the public”. Both are involved in Outreach and Education for NASA, working to support  the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They are Outreachers to their core, and it shows. Reading their book is genuinely like sitting in a hall, listening to them give a presentation.

The book is hardly revolutionary in its format, taking the reader on a trip through the universe, from the Sun to the distant reaches of the copsmos in the classic “astronomy road trip” way. But this is no ordinary, boring road trip that just stops at the most obvious places, the places everyone goes to. This road trip takes in places off the astronomical beaten track, oddities and curiosities. Yes, it takes you to the universe’s Mt Rushmores and Yosemites, but it also takes you to the quaint little towns tourists rarely discover, and the beautiful beaches and forests only the locals know about.

But really this is, as I said, a masterclass in astronomy Outreach. Reading it is honestly like listening to a skilled, knowledgeable astronomy lecturer, or in this case a pair of lecturers, Kim and Megan, who are superb and natural communicators. I do a lot of Outreach talks myself, and reading this book, thinking of it as a presentation in paper form, made me realise how far I have to go and how much better I can be. Kim and Megan give a presentation during which nothing jarrs, no jokes misfire, and heavy, hard science rubs shoulders easily and comfortably with “Wow! That’s amazing!” factoids and “Sheesh, I had no idea…” moments of scientific revelation. They explain the heavy, hard stuff clearly and concisely, translating the gobbledygook and jargon into easy-to-understand language which is, after all, what Outreach is all about, isn’t it? At several points in the book I read one of their descriptions and thought “Right, NOW I get that…” when a concept or theory I’d previously struggled with suddenly made perfect sense.

This is a bo0k clearly written by two people who love astronomy, and are excited and inspired by the universe. Reading it made me feel the same way, and I’ve been doing this stuff for almost forty years now! It’s a real “fan letter” to astronomy. It might be the authors’ jobs to tell people about the universe, but it’s their passion too. So many books lose sight of the fact that astronomy is exciting, and fascinating, and incredible, and just fill their pages with lists and tables, and trot out the same facts old about the Great Red Spot, or comet tails, etc etc etc. Not this one.

Of course it’s illustrated, richly – it’s commercial suicide for an astronomy book NOT to be nowadays, when there are so many websites offering jaw-droppingly beautiful astronomical images – and the pictures are well chosen, complementing the text perfectly. But to be honest I found myself skipping past the pictures to get back to the text, because reading it is just so much fun and so enjoyable. The text is littered with always relevent and appropriate pop culture references – movies, music, anything to engage with the readership. I just loved this paragraph…

As we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there are many moons around the planets in our Solar System. Some of them are simply fascinating. Science fiction writers have been drawn to moons as intriguing destinations for a long time – think of Endor from return of the Jedi or Pandora from Avatar. While none of the moons contains Ewoks or Na’vi, the moons in our Solar System offer compelling scientific reasons for exploring them. here we describe just a few of our favourite moons.”

That’s an example of how the text flows freely and without any jarring subject or topic changes, each page, each section connecting perfectly with the next, just as a good presentation should. Again, the sign of very skilled Outreachers.

If that all sounds very gushy, well, sorry, but it’s a book I’m happy to gush about! It’s not perfect tho. I’m not smitten by the look of the book, i.e its use of spacey header fonts and the layout, which makes the book feel a bit like a Star Trek spin-off book from the 1980s, but that’s just a personal thing; the contents are far more important, and I can’t fault them at all.

Go into your local bookshop (or bookstore, hi, US readers!) and you’ll be faced with a huge choice of popular astronomy titles, all staring at you from the shelves purring, pleading “Buy me… buy me…” Which do you choose? Well, if it’s there, you’d be hard pressed to beat this one, in my opinion. If you buy it you’re effectively arranging for a private astronomy Outreach talk to be given in your own front room, or study, or wherever you read, by two extremely skilled communicators. They’ll show you beautiful pictures, and explain clearly how amazing the universe is, and how we’ve learned so much about it.

Highly recommended.

“YOUR TICKET TO THE UNIVERSE – A Guide to Exploring The Cosmos”

Smithsonian Books

Kimberley Arcand and Megan Watzke

ISBN 978-1-58834-375-8

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Actually, the timing of the publication of this book is perfect, because it provides a perfect illustration of the importance and value of good Outreach, at a time when NASA’s Outreach work is being hacked and slashed back because of decisions made by politicians. I know that there’s a battle going on in the US now in the political world, and as a Brit I can’t, and don’t, claim to understand it, but it seems to me from this side of the pond that one of the US political parties is going completely gibberingly village idiot insane, embracing pseudoscience and downright finger-twirling-by-the-temple drooling, witch-burning, pitchfork-wielding lunacy.  I can’t understand it, it’s quite frightening. It’s as if they are terrified by science, and hate it, absolutely hate it. And because the only thing they hate more than science is the other political party, they’ve brought about a situation where the US budget has had brutal cuts forced upon it. One of the consequences of this is that NASA has made the decision to severely cut back on its Outreach and Education program – just at the exact moment in time when people need to be educated and informed about the value of science more than ever before, and the relentlessly marching armies of ignorance and superstition need to be pushed back.

This book is a perfect example of what great Outreach can achieve – it can help people understand their place in the universe, and open their eyes to the incredible things science gives us. I honestly wish that every one of the stupid, stupid politicians engaged in the current War Against Science in the US could be sent a copy of this book. It might help a few of them realise just how ridiculous they are, and how important Outreach is. Outreach is so essential, *so* essential; every talk, every website, every Tweet, every FB post, every computer-rendered image, is an investment in the future. To just cut it like this… How many childrens’ dreams will this drown? How many flames of inspiration will never be lit? I wish I could get them all in a room, lock the door, throw a copy of this book at them and scream  “You goddamned bloody idiots! THIS is what you are stopping!”It might be too late to stop a huge amount of damage being done, but History will judge them very harshly for this, the morons. In a thousand years time, when men and women finally stand on worlds orbiting faraway stars, looking for Sol in their night sky, their children will be taught in school about what happened, and the names of the cretins responsible will be spoken with disgust and contempt. That’ll be their “legacy”, the idiots.

 

 

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