TCS Daily

Not for Hitchhikers

By Kenneth Silber - May 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Having recently sat through the forgettable Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, I was a bit wary upon opening a new book purporting to be a guide to things celestial. However, I am pleased to report that From Blue Moons to Black Holes: A Basic Guide to Astronomy, Outer Space, and Space Exploration, by Melanie Melton Knocke (Prometheus Books), is an interesting and valuable compendium on space-related topics.

The book will be particularly helpful to people who have not followed astronomy and space exploration closely and want to get up to speed on these subjects. Nonetheless, it also contains assorted nuggets of information that may be unfamiliar even to people with a longtime interest in space. For instance, I did not know that the Soviets sent turtles, worms, flies and other live specimens around the moon and back to Earth in 1968 aboard a spacecraft called Zond 5. ("The turtles had lost a bit of weight, but otherwise seemed fine. Not much is known about the condition of the other creatures, although it is doubtful they survived the forces of reentry.")

The book's largest part is in question-and-answer format, divided into sections for topics such as the solar system, the moon, stars, space travel, galaxies, and telescopes. Each question is followed by a short answer and then a longer elaboration. For example, "Is Saturn the only planet that has rings?" yields a quick "No," followed by an explanation that all four of the solar system's gas giant planets have rings, and a discussion of how the relatively inconspicuous rings of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune were discovered. Similarly, "What is a neutron star?" is answered "A very small, dense remnant of a dead star"; the elaboration points out that such remnants arise from supernova explosions and are so dense that a teaspoonful of neutron star material would weigh several million tons.

The questions and answers regarding telescopes are recommended reading for anyone about to make a first purchase of a telescope. The discussion of space travel includes succinct but informative explanations of what happened to the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Some of the answers are opinionated: "Should humans travel to Mars?" is answered "Yes." Adding that it is human nature to explore, Melton Knocke points out that there are plausible ideas for how human missions to Mars could be accomplished.

From Blue Moons to Black Holes is laudably wide-ranging. A second part of the book consists of fact-oriented lists about matters such as upcoming eclipses, the various moons of the solar system, the brightest and closest stars, the constellations, meteor showers, and so on. A third part gives brief histories of missions to the moon and planets. The "blue moons" of the book's title, incidentally, are less exotic than they sound; a blue moon is the second full moon in a month, or the third of four full moons in a season.

The book has a few weaknesses, mostly matters of omission. Cosmology, which could have received its own Q-and-A section, is dealt with only obliquely in sections on black holes and galaxies. Space commerce receives little notice; there is no mention of the first forays into space tourism or the breakthrough private-sector flights that won the X-Prize. The book's list of space-related websites is heavily weighted toward NASA sites; a more comprehensive list could have mentioned, to name a few, the Mars Society,, NASA Watch, The Space Review and Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings. Also, Melton Knocke's discussion of the International Space Station strikes me as excessively adulatory, given the project's delays, cost overruns, and drain on other space projects.

Nevertheless, the strengths of From Blue Moons to Black Holes considerably outweigh its weaknesses. The book is an accessible introduction to subject matter that is notable for its complexity -- rocket science, in fact. This guide will help kindle, or rekindle, people's interest in space.


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