The space book

The Space Book: From the beginning to the end of time, 250 milestones in the history of space & astronomy
Jim Bell, Sterling, New York (2013), RRP $34.99

One of the most intriguing and ambitious books to cross our desks this month is The Space Book, by Jim Bell, a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

In just over 500 pages Bell charts the major events and discoveries that have marked advances in mankind’s understanding of the heavens. That is no mean feat, taking us from the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, to the night 10100 years from now when, if you’re up late enough, you will see the starry skies either gently fade to black or disappear with a massive explosion - scientists differ on quite how the cosmos ends.

It could have been a stultifying tome, but Bell decided on an accessible format with which to present this vast sweep of cosmic history. Each double page neatly celebrates a milestone event with text and a glorious facing image – some photographs; others artists' impressions.

These events span from ancient Egyptian astronomy in 2500 BCE to our first tentative steps towards serious space travel. Along the way we are treated to Pythagoras’s declaration in 500 BCE that the Earth was spherical, Ptolemy’s treatise on mathematics and astronomy, Almagest, in 150 CE and the birth of India’s great father of astronomy, Aryabhatiya, in 500 CE.

We also have the development of calculus, the invention of telescopes, and the steady discovery over the years of planets, stars, asteroids, galaxies and supernovae.

Cutting the entire history of astronomy and space exploration down to just 250 milestones is, as Bell notes, a daunting task, and he admits his selections reflect his own biases, knowledge, and experience. But readers will have few complaints with his ambitious sweep.

This is a book to dip into in the assurance you will leave knowing more than when you went in. Bell’s prose is clear and concise even when describing the most baffling intricacies of neutrino astronomy or the genesis of our understanding of dark energy.

The only quibble is that the printing, carried out in China presumably to keep costs down, is not as crisp as it could be and images that could be truly breathtaking are merely striking.

Despite that, it is a wonderful volume to keep on the coffee table, your desk or beside the loo, wherever it is you find time to ponder the amazing universe around you.

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