Top positive review
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Fasten your seatbelts!
on 19 October 2013
I bought this a while ago now to compliment Cosmos: A Journey to the Beginning of Time and Space... by which I suppose I mean, this was just as much of an impulse buy as that was. What can I say? I can resist everything but temptation... especially when that temptation involves getting my hands on the sort of stunning images that are found inside this book. And, being slightly more easy to carry with one hand than 'Cosmos' (unless, of course, you happen to be built like Giant Haystacks), succumbing to the temptation of purchasing this fine work also left me with one hand free to carry back to my office the family bar of Galaxy that had just thrown itself upon me as well. As I say, I can resist everything but temptation.
Most of the almost 400 pages in here are devoted to these '1001 of the most dramatic astronomical images ever captured', with the explanations for each of them kept succinct and interesting, and any superfluous scientific gobbledygook confined to a refreshing and unintimidating minimum. This is a journey through space and, by definition, through time. Vast amounts of space and incredible expanses of time. The figures become quite overwhelming as the book goes on but I think that's part of the thrill of reading a work like this one.
The book is divided into 5 sections, plus an index and several pages of picture credits;
1. Introduction - a two-page potted history of astronomy, the words cleverly chosen to make the reader feel like a modern-day Galileo. The science behind the beautiful images that await us is hinted here, as is the sheer scale of what we're going to be asked to consider, but there is something about the non-threatening, rather cheerful way time periods like 13.75 billion years are introduced into the conversation right from the outset that inspires great trust in the skills of Piers Bizony to be able to make our trip right to the edge of space in his company a truly enjoyable one.
2. Our Solar System - around about 120 pages devoted to the history, formation and composition of the solar system, starting with the undoubted (and literal!) star of the show, the Sun. So incomprehensibly large is this body apparently that, in the 4.5 billion years it's been around, it has managed to convert four million tons of Hydrogen into energy every SECOND... something it ought to be able to continue to do for another 5000 million years yet! Predictably, we then meet Mercury, Venus, Earth (plus the Moon), Mars (and moons)... then it's a brief foray into the world of asteroids before dealing with the 'Gas Planets'. Poor old Pluto, no longer welcomed into the regular planetary fold and consequently ostracised by the rest of them, is now, like comets, a part of the 'Icy Wanderers' gang it seems.
3. Interstellar Space - approximately 125 pages represent this chunk of the galaxy. Suddenly, the distances between the objects up for discussion becomes vast, because suddenly we are talking about 'light years' as one of the significant methods of measurement. Light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach us here on Earth, right? Well, the light from Proxima Centauri, which is the closest star to our own sun, takes more than four years to reach us. And the light from the Orion Nebula (an astronomical feature which measures more than 100 light years across to begin with) takes 1500 years to reach Earth! These figures are truly mind-boggling, aren't they? The images of a whole variety of different nebulae are quite breathtaking and this chapter is consequently probably my favourite. Even if I do have a hard time trying to comprehend the personal details of something like the 'Pistol Star'. This thing is a blue hypergiant, 25000 light years away that - wait for it - 'hurls out as much energy in a single second as our Sun does in a year'!! Truly amazing.
4. Intergalactic Space - these 100ish pages are where Mr Bizony perpetually manages to lose me completely, I'm afraid, certainly in so far as his explanatory text is concerned. The images are still gorgeous but I simply cannot comprehend the scale of what they actually represent. My tiny little brain cannot cope with the idea of vast objects 70 million light years away (or even further!). As an example of just how mindboggling the scale of what is being discussed here actually is, the spiral galaxy of NGC 1350 is actually spoken of here as a 'Jurassic Spectacle'. Why? Oh, because the light which went into forming the picture of that galaxy on page 331 of this book 'first began the long journey to our telescopes' as the 'dinosaurs were heading for extinction and the first small mammals were scuttling under their feet'. Does anyone else feel like they need a lie down after trying to comprehend something like that? No? Oh well, that must just be me then.
5. The Cosmos - an illustrated discussion about the 'Big Bang', redshift, dark matter and black holes. 2.6 billion light years away dwells a supermassive black hole that has, hold on to your hats now, already sucked in the mass equivalent of a billion stars. The energy it is now releasing is, apparently, the greatest energy burst since the Big Bang. That is one hell of a cosmic belch that is.
This is a fabulous book, not too scary in the sort of language it uses to explain its contents to you, but utterly terrifying in its ability to make you ask your own deep philosophical questions.
Don't be deceived - this is way more than just a 1001-image picture book!