Your daily cosmos in full colour

The Universe
September 19, 2003

This book is nothing if not eye-catching. As soon as I saw it two things struck me. First, the quality of the pictures, which are superbly reproduced (it may be significant that the book was printed in China).

Second, the price. The usual complaint about lavishly illustrated books is that they are too expensive, but in this case the price is eminently reasonable, and the publishers must be congratulated.

The book is based on one of the most popular sites on the internet, Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is compiled by the book's authors Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, both well-known scientists closely associated with Nasa. One picture is selected for each day of the year, 365 in all (clearly they have no patience with February 29), and takes up a full page, with the text facing it on the left-hand page. There is no obvious link between the day and its picture; for example, May 2 is devoted to the Tadpole Galaxy, while July features ancient volcanoes on Mars.

Neither is there any definite arrangement of the pictures; for example, in July successive pages are devoted to a planetary nebula, the Sudbury neutrino detector, a total solar eclipse, a view from an asteroid (Gaspra) and the Vela supernova remnant. The system works remarkably well. It guarantees that wherever you open the book, you will find something to fascinate you.

Many of the images come from the Hubble Space Telescope, but others come from varied sources; some terrestrial (notably the Very Large Telescope in Chile) and some from spacecraft. There are also many artists' impressions and useful, attractive diagrams. Obviously the authors have attempted to provide "something for everybody", and they have succeeded excellently.

Let us take a few examples. Would you like to start near home? Very well, we have the famous "orange soil" found on the Moon by the Apollo 17 astronauts (July 6) and the "cratered inferno" of Mercury as seen at close range by Mariner 10 (January 2). Mars is well represented; the strange gullies in some Martian craters are shown for June 22, and the layered structure of the Mariner Valley on December 3, as well as the "smiling face crater" Galle (March 12) and a panoramic view of the Ares Vallis, taken from the surface by the instruments on the Sagan Memorial Station (July 23). Further out, we see aurorae on Saturn (January 23), dark spots on Neptune (August 23) and even the latest view of Pluto, showing a certain amount of surface detail (April 15). There is one particularly striking picture of a comet, Ikeya-Zhang, in the same field as the Andromeda Galaxy (April 13).

But it is in "deep space" that the book is at its best. Consider the extraordinary Ant Nebula (February 5), the dark, winding Snake Nebula (April 9), the Sombrero Galaxy (October 2), the Mice Galaxies (May 6), the graceful Southern Pinwheel Galaxy (December 3), the unique Eta Carinae and its nebula (August 13) and the Hubble Deep Field (January ), showing some of the remotest objects ever recorded. The text is concise, accurate and informative; any slips are trivial (for April 29 the astronomer David Fabricious is said to be German; in fact he was Dutch). Only two criticisms can be made. The index could certainly be improved, and some of the images are not credited; for example August 8 is devoted to a barred spiral galaxy, NGC 1345 - but what is the source? I happen to know that it is a Hubble picture, but the fact is not made clear.

This book is a joy, and certainly the most beautiful book on astronomy that I have seen. Make haste to obtain your copy.

Sir Patrick Moore is the author of more than 60 books on astronomy.

The Universe: 365 Days

Author - Robert J. Nemiroff and Jerry T. Bonnell
ISBN - 0500511217
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 370

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