I remember once reading a beautiful passage by a travel writer describing the frisson of pleasure he felt every time he looked through the British Airways schedule book. He described how the long lists of wonderfully exotic-sounding destinations around the world and crisp tables of flight departure and arrival times generated such a sense of adventure that he enjoyed browsing this book of possibilities almost as much as the travel itself. Patrick Moore's Data Book of Astronomy holds this same allure for the armchair traveller, a compendium of the far-away and strange destinations in the heavens.
Sir Patrick Moore is one of the first names to pop into your mind when you think of astronomy. And he's certainly a veteran: his programme The Sky at Night is the longest-running TV series (with the same presenter) in the world. He recently celebrated his "700 and not out" episode, in which I had the honour of answering viewers' questions about the search for life beyond Earth. Alongside this TV heritage, the 88-year-old Moore is an astoundingly prolific writer, with more than 300 books to his name. This particular volume has descended, through many updated editions and transformations, from The Guinness Book of Astronomy that Moore wrote more than 50 years ago, at the very dawn of the space age.
The diverse offerings of the night sky - nebulae, galaxies, constellations, clusters, comets, asteroids, double stars, variable stars, meteor storms, supernovae, planets and moons - are all here, neatly organised, catalogued and enumerated. Like the British Airways schedule, the book's tables of distant objects conjure up notions of exoticism and excitement by their designations alone: the mostly Arabic-named stars; the names, derived from classical mythology, of the planets and moons of our solar system; the Latin scientific names, such as Microscopium, for southern hemisphere constellations (which were named not by the ancients but by European naval explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries); and even the dry catalogue numbers of the galaxies.
You can peruse the appellations of the rings of Saturn and the crevices and craters on the Moon, or Mars, or even the tiny moons of Mars for that matter. Particularly delightful are the labelled charts of the other planets and moons in our solar system: mappae mundi of alien worlds. These offerings of extraterrestrial cartography allow you to sink back into the sofa and explore at your leisure the rusty terrain of Mars, the volcanically pockmarked face of Io, or Titan and its petrochemical lakes.
But this isn't just a tome for data junkies or inveterate pub quizzers looking for an esoteric edge. Readers with no prior interest in amateur astronomy will find a lot to captivate here. It also contains clearly written, up-to-date sections explaining what all these various celestial objects are, and how we've come to know them. For example, different chapters contain brief biographies of key figures in the history of astronomy, early notions of what the comets appearing in the night skies actually were, the stories of the robotic space probes that we have launched over the decades to explore our neighbouring worlds close up, and the possibility of an as-yet-undiscovered "Planet X" lurking in the outer regions of the solar system.
This work offers so much more than a handbook for backyard telescopes; it is an atlas for the Universe around us that will surprise every time you dip in.
Patrick Moore's Data Book of Astronomy
By Patrick Moore and Robin Rees
Cambridge University Press
Published 10 February 2011