Sizing Up The Universe

By J. Richard Gott and Robert J. Vanderbei. Hardback, 248pp. US Price $35. UK Price £19.99. Publisher: National Geographic. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0651-1

National Geographic publications are world renowned for the stunning photographs and quality of writing; so how would a book on the Universe compare when we can access so many wonderful images of the cosmos from the Internet? This book does not disappoint at all.

Click to buy in the US.

Click to buy in the UK.

One of the most difficult things to do is imagine just how big things are in the solar system, never mind our Galaxy, let alone the rest of the Universe yet this book sets out to tackle this problem by putting the Universe in perspective and giving us an idea of the true sizes of the objects in the heavens.

Written by an professional astronomer and illustrated with images from NASA and an amateur astronomer taking pictures from his back garden in light-polluted New Jersey we are taken on a journey to understand size in the universe.

The book starts with the idea that if you know how big something looks and you know how far away it is then you can work out how big it really is. We are given some simple comparisons using the Moon, the Sun and a handful of conversions for angles and distances; we are then shown how big things would look at increasing magnification. This is probably the most challenging of the chapters to really get to grips with as it is the one in which you learn to compare apparent sizes of objects and relate that to distance. Throughout this chapter it is our well known Moon that is used as the bench mark to understand size even down to comparing Buzz Aldrin’s footprint at 1.3 light seconds away with Alpha Centauri at 4.4 light years away!

The next chapter deals with mapping the sky. It describes how a celestial cube is created, how that shows the star charts and what can be seen above the horizon for each season as well as showing both North and South circumpolar regions. For each star chart a range of interesting celestial objects are identified and briefly described providing a good list of objects to go out and hunt for throughout the year.

Having got to grips with the basic idea’s need to understand size and distance the bulk of the book looks at distances from the Earth to the edge of the visible universe and sizes in the Solar System. A brief description of how the Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks charted the course of the stars and measured the distance to the Sun and diameter of the Earth is followed by a description of the distances from Earth to the Sun, stars, galaxies and beyond. In the centre of the book is a fold out map of the universe taking us from the solid inner core of the Earth via members of our solar system, comets, stars, nebula, galaxies and quasars to the cosmic microwave background. It is a well illustrated and easy to follow map which gives distances not only in kilometres and parsecs but also in the number of Earth radii which is to easier to imagine.

The comparison of sizes in the Solar System is the most fascinating section; here there are illustrations which, for example, compare the size of the Grand Canyon on Earth to the size of Valles Marineris on Mars and the size of the USA to a single sun spot. This is where a little time spent in the early chapters pays off as you can easily make a comparison of the features and suddenly you begin to realise the immense size and structure of some of most wonderful objects in the Solar System.

The final chapter shows the sizes of different objects in the universe through a series of scaled pictures. Each picture is 1,000 times smaller than the previous picture. Starting with a picture of Buzz Aldrin’s footprint at actual size the following ten incremental steps take us to a scale of one to one octillion and the edge of the visible universe. The accompanying explanations of the objects shown complete the overall picture of our amazing universe.

As expected this is a beautifully illustrated (over half of the pages are images) and informative book which is accessible to a wide range of people from those just beginning to be interested in the universe to those who have more advanced knowledge. It is much more than an excellent ‘coffee table’ book; it is also a fantastic reference book where the unusual approach to illustrating size and distance is very successful in ‘sizing up the universe’.

Click on this link to buy Sizing Up The Universe in the US.

Click on this link to buy Sizing Up The Universe in the UK.

Guest review by Mandy Bailey

(Mandy Bailey is a PhD student at Keele University and Publicity Officer of the Society for Popular Astronomy.)

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