The arrival of a new publisher in a traditional area always leads the jaded reader to hope for novelty. The Rough Guides are known as pioneering travel books but, as this book shows, they now have wider ambitions.
The book's running order, starting with the basic layout of the universe, and proceeding via the solar system from the Sun outwards before reaching stars and galaxies and ending with star maps and hints for basic astronomical observation, would be familiar to anybody who has picked up a popular astronomy book published since about 1900.
However, there is nothing traditional about its content, which begins with challenging stuff about the origin of the universe and "inflation", the expansion of the early universe from less than the size of a proton to the "nice and roomy" dimensions of a melon, the creation of atomic particles and the eventual appearance of atoms. Unlike much popular science writing, the text explains the reasons for believing in, say, the big bang, instead of simply describing how it happened.
A great deal of effort has gone into explaining topics, such as the rings of Saturn, that look simple but are exceptionally complex. There is also a good appreciation of the role of the sky in culture, both ancient and modern. Also, inquire within for material on sun gods and on the names of Jupiter's satellites.
There is much to like in the book, and some excellent writing on topics such as exotic objects in the universe. But there is plenty that is not good enough, such as errors and idle editing. While page 17 offers a poor explanation of precession (the effect of the Earth's axis spinning in space), misnamed "procession", page 72 gives a perfectly adequate explanation of the same thing, with no cross-referencing.
In a howler, William Herschel is said to have discovered the planet Uranus with the immense 40ft telescope he built at Slough; in fact, he found it with a small telescope from his garden in Bath. Elsewhere, we are told the UK has seen four total eclipses in the 1,000 years - odd, as my father has managed three and he is only 88.
Sometimes the text is downright mystifying. We are told that Jupiter generates heat and that the source is not nuclear fusion, but we are not told where it does come from. Radio telescopes are mentioned for their role in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but the vital role of radio astronomy within the subject at large never appears.
In addition, the star charts and other observational aids are accurate but inadequate. Maps of the sky chopped up into constellations are of little use unless the user knows where the constellations are and how they fit together. Anyone making use of them will soon demand something more detailed.
Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES .
The Rough Guide to the Universe
Author - John Scalzi
Publisher - Rough Guides
Pages - 390
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 1 85828 939 4