The 12 books of Christmas 2017

Looking for a Secret Santa gift for an astronomer or space fan, or perhaps searching for a good read to break up the Christmas shopping? Look no further than our pick of the top 12 books that should be on your Santa list this festive season, selected from our monthly book reviews during 2017.

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ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti reads a Russian version of The Planet Made of Chocolate by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari, in a video recorded during her Futura mission on the International Space Station in 2015. Image Credit: ESA/NASA


Hidden Figures
Margot Lee Shetterly
(William Collins)

01 - hidden figures

Hidden Figures tells the never before documented tale of how NASA (and its predecessor NACA) employed teams of female African American mathematicians as human ‘computers’ from the 1940s onwards.

What is surprising is that these women were recruited to work alongside white male engineers and scientists in Langley, a town in West Virginia, which was one of the most racially segregated states in the USA.

Shetterly tells the tale of these remarkable women (she concentrates on four women in this book but estimates there were more than 50 altogether) and how they obtained college degrees in maths before working as teachers.

During the Second World War scientists and mathematicians were in short supply, and NACA realised that the African American women right on its doorstep were more than qualified to do the calculations required for developing the new generations of planes and later, once the space race took off, spacecraft.

Initially the workplace at NACA was segregated but soon the barriers started to fall.

Shetterly details the battle fought and won by the women to sit where they wanted in the canteen.

As with the earlier generation of female ‘computers’ hired at Harvard, these women were not just button-pushers, they contributed fully to the demanding and rigorous technical work.

The book excels when it details the minutiae of these women’s lives in the wider social context both before and after they seized the opportunity to work at NACA/NASA, and this detail about living in such a segregated society is particularly informative for British readers.

Score: 4/5

Pippa Goldschmidt is an astronomy and science writer

The Astronomy Book
Various authors
(Dorling Kindersley)

02 - Astronomy

Astronomy makes it easy to settle into conversations about superlatives: the most cratered planet or the most volcanic moon.

As with so many other things, what we know isn’t just a group of isolated facts, but the result of work done by scientists over many years.

The Astronomy Book puts what we’ve learned into an easy-to-follow narrative in everyday language, light on maths with history as the guiding undercurrent.

The big questions we’ve asked for millennia are answered with biographical sidebars about the scientists who led the way and an explanation of their methods.

Its easy style can be read as a long-form history of astronomy, but also as a historical and scientific reference, to be chipped away at section by section, a little here, a little there.

It’s tough, though, to get what feels like the entire history of astronomy into 350 pages.

The artwork and sidebars, as gorgeous and well done as they are, are sometimes distracting and make it difficult to focus on one thing at a time.

Superlatives or not, The Astronomy Book is so well thought-out and presented that it makes me want to start over and learn it all from scratch again.

Score: 4/5

Scott Levine is an amateur astronomer, astro-sketcher and astrophotographer.

Mars: The Pristine Beauty of the Red Planet
Alfred S McEwen, Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, Ari Espinoza
(University of Arizona Press)

03 Mars book

Images selected to portray the diversity of life on Earth were sent into space 40 years ago on the Voyager spacecraft, and images that might make up a Golden Record of Mars have been captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and are presented in Mars: The Pristine Beauty of the Red Planet.

“You’re now at the top of the world, the summit of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the Solar System.

In addition to lava flows, impact craters, and wind-streaked dust, sometimes there will be features such as this lava channel.”

This passage is just one example of how the authors guide the reader through the geography and geology of Mars, making us feel like a bird flying above the Red Planet choosing landing spots.

But light brown dunes, reddish gullies and grey avalanches are more than just beautiful landscapes.

These structures store the history of the Red Planet, from the so-called ‘modern times’ of dust and ice caps to the landforms created during its ancient history.

For scientists, this book may be a record of Martian geology, history and even a search for possible future landing sites, while astronomy enthusiasts will find a snapshot of our current scientific understanding of the planet.

Dreamers will use it as a tool for a journey through time and space.

Score: 5/5

Sandra Kropa is a science journalist and writer.

Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses
John Dvorak
(Pegasus Books)

04 - Mask of the Sun

Written Western history spans around forty centuries, during which there have been a total of around 10,000 solar eclipses and 6,000 lunar eclipses.

These impressive events have inspired fright, superstition and awe in many of the people who witnessed them, and have often defined the course of human history as we slowly came to understand how and why these celestial showpieces occur.

Mask of the Sun opens with an evocative account of the flight of the USS Los Angeles airship into the skies above New York in January 1925 to enable a party of forty people to witness a total solar eclipse.

As we learn, helium was first detected during spectroscopic observations carried out by Norman Lockyer of solar prominences, which sprang into view during solar eclipses.

Eclipses have been passports to our deeper understanding of many events in Earth’s history, even allowing us to determine when the first Olympic Games took place.

They have helped us to gain insights into the properties of the Sun and Moon, such as knowing the lunar surface is covered by a layer of dust long before mankind sent probes there.

They have enabled us to unravel the mysteries of gravity as well as providing insights into Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Dvorak is a worthy narrator who has an eye for detail, and does an excellent and inspirational job of portraying the fascination that eclipses hold for those who are lucky enough to witness them.

Score: 5/5

Brian Jones has written 17 books on astronomy and space.

The Ascent of Gravity
Marcus Chown
(Orion Publishing)

05 - Ascent of Gravityy

Is physics awaiting the rise of a new scientific Messiah? The next Newton? The successor to Einstein?

This question lies at the core of The Ascent of Gravity, a summary of humankind’s understanding of the mysterious force, and our need to reconcile its incompatibility with the subatomic world.

Largely dispensing with Aristotelian physics, the author begins with the apocryphal falling apple, explaining how a simple observation led Newton to more-or-less reinvent physics.

The triumphs of Newtonian mechanics are then discussed: the orbits of the Moon and planets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and the prediction of the eighth planet, Neptune.

Next, the text focuses on the revolutionary spirit of Einstein: the development of special relativity and the quest for its generalisation.

The author explains succinctly the successes of Einstein’s theories, from Mercury’s perihelion to the eclipse expedition of 1919.

The remaining third of the book gets to the crux of the matter: the rise of quantum mechanics and its ultimate incompatibility with general relativity.

Chown does an admirable job of discussing the fundamental problems in producing an all-encompassing theory of ‘quantum gravity’.

After a quick review of quantum topics such as wave-particle duality, entanglement, the Uncertainty Principle etc., the author carefully explains how the smooth and large is at odds with the small and grainy.

Hinting at what a replacement model might look like, string theory is introduced and discussed in the final few pages of the book.

Score: 4/5

Dr Alastair Gunn is a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire

The Ascent of Gravity
Marcus Chown
(Orion Publishing)

06 - astrophysics

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

The epigraph of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book hints that understanding the mechanisms and structures within our Universe is probably, for most of us anyway, beyond reach.

But this is a ruse because by the end of this book, you may not know the all answers to the bigger questions that continue to perplex the greatest minds, but you will most certainly have a pretty good grasp of every part of our known Universe, how it came to be and what still keeps physicists up at night.

Not bad for a book just over 200 pages.

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the Universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun,” Tyson says at the end of the first chapter, which provides a backdrop to the overarching story of our Universe from its early beginnings to present day.

Digging deeper in subsequent chapters covering gravity, light, dark matter and dark energy, Tyson shares with us not only what is understood but also the questions that still confound physicists.

But the true gem of this book is how he posits these phenomena; he somehow reveals a path through complex thought and theory in astrophysics for the reader, depositing enough detail to ponder upon, imploring us to consider possible answers to these confounding questions for ourselves.

Score: 5/5

Niamh Shaw is an engineer, lecturer and science communicator.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Govert Schilling
(Harvard University Press)

07 - ripples

Ripples in Spacetime details the search for gravitational waves first predicted by Albert Einstein and its final success, already hailed as the greatest scientific discovery of this young century.

The book covers the science of general relativity, the nature of space and time and some of the most extreme events and objects in the Universe.

It explains complex ideas, clearly and entertainingly, with clever use of some nice analogies, from football crowds to the Star Wars Death Star.

It details the personalities, rivalries, collaborations, controversies, setbacks and successes on the century-long quest to test Einstein’s theories.

The book describes science in progress and as a process; how ideas are developed and discoveries made and rejected or confirmed.

The best part is the detail the book goes into about the first detection and the meticulous protocols in place to scrutinise and eliminate every possible error.

Schilling also looks forward to what we can expect in this whole new field of astronomy.

This is a book for everyone who was as excited as I was when the LIGO discovery first broke, but also for anyone who wants to know what all the fuss was about.

Score: 5/5

Jenny Winder is a freelance science writer, astronomer and broadcaster.

American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World
David Baron
(Liveright Publishing)

08 - American Eclipse

The total solar eclipse of 1878 plunged America into darkness.

But those three short minutes of totality captured the imagination of this young nation, furthering the pursuit of scientific endeavour that still defines the United States of America today.

Author and eclipse fanatic David Baron gives a compelling account of this phenomenon through the stories of three individuals who raced to observe it.

Comet-hunter James Craig Watson hopes to use the eclipse to prove the existence of a hitherto-undiscovered planet inside the orbit of Mercury.

Astronomer Maria Mitchell is fighting for equal recognition of female scientists.

Inventor Thomas Edison needs desperately to prove the worth of his latest creation (the microtasimeter, designed to measure changes in the heat emitted from the Sun’s corona and from distant stars).

The author gives a skillful account of the scientific aims of the various teams of eclipse-watchers, from the examination of the solar corona to the more precise calculation of the Moon’s orbit.

He also gives a tantalising insight into the lives of the leading astronomers of the time and explores the wider context within which this story unfolds, from the country’s focus on the pursuit of fortune to the settlers’ tragic relationship with the Native American population.

Score: 5/5

Simon Perks is a science writer and amateur astronomer

Vacation Guide to the Solar System
Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich
(Square Peg)

09 - Vacation

Would you like to ski on Pluto? Tour the blistering surface of Venus in a giant submarine on wheels?

What about plunging into the subsurface, briny ocean of Europa?

Look no further than this lavishly illustrated tome and you’ll find out how to do all of this – and more.

Vacation Guide to the Solar System reads like an actual travel guide.

However, the destinations are far more exotic than anything in this over-populated and polluted Earth.

This is a study of the Solar System at its most majestic; a blow-by-blow account of all of the major planets, selected dwarf planets, and some of the more substantial or interesting moons, and always with a focus on what to see and do in these amazing, alien environments.

After a visit to the Moon, we reach sunwards to find Mercury before heading outwards, stopping at every planet along the way until we reach Pluto, and beyond.

Each chapter is broken down into sections detailing how to get there, when to go, what to do, getting around, etc. – again, like a regular travel guide, with an emphasis on scientific accuracy.

But what really brings this book alive for me are the stunning illustrations, all done in an art-deco style, like the travel posters of yesteryear.

Score: 5/5

Mark Garlick is an illustrator, author and computer animator whose work graces Jon Culshaw’s Exoplanet Excursions column every month.

Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space
Tim Peake

10 - Ask an Astronaut

What kind of food do you eat in space? How do you weigh yourself?

Astronaut Tim Peake has been asked such questions and thousands more since last year’s successful ESA Principia mission to the International Space Station.

And now he’s compiled answers to these and many more in his second book Ask An Astronaut.

Structured as a series of questions, we can choose to read this book chronologically or to jump in on any page.

Written in a warm and relatable style, Peake reveals to us three aspects of his life as an astronaut; firstly his experiences as crew member onboard the ISS: the experiments, the daily exercises, the cleaning rota, how soft one’s feet become through lack of use and how to peek down to Earth from the vista of the cupola brushing your teeth each night.

Secondly, the rigour, commitment and extensive training required in preparing for space manoeuvres, including his space walk, and launch and re-entry procedures.

And lastly, the need for a solid foundation in science and engineering in all tasks as astronaut, which he capably displays in some of his more technical answers, with accompanying illustrations and graphics.

While it is not a memoir, Ask an Astronaut is an enjoyable read and an excellent insight in to the work, life and responsibilities of these highly skilled individuals.

Aimed at readers of all ages, it’s the perfect gift for anyone with a passion for space and a lifelong ambition to be a part of human space exploration.

Score: 4/5

The Planets: Photographs from the Archives of NASA
Nirmala Nataraj
(Chronicle Books)

11 - ThePlanets

Founded almost 60 years ago, NASA has launched over a thousand missions, which have returned millions of images to both inform scientists and delight everyone who sees them.

The Planets delves into NASA’s archive to present a highlight tour of our Solar System.

Each planetary system is given a lush chapter of its own.

From the terrestrial planets, including some wonderful views of Earth, to the gas giants with their diverse moons, and beyond to Pluto, Vesta and Ceres and even Rosetta’s encounter with comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the book shows the incredible variety of objects in our cosmic backyard.

There are Martian panoramas taken by rovers like Curiosity, and images of the Red Planet’s surface captured by the HIRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that are abstract works of art, and Cassini’s jaw-dropping images from Saturn and its ring system.

There are historic images of Neptune and Uranus taken by Voyager 2 in the 1980s, as well as images of Jupiter taken just last year by the Juno mission.

The book is compact in size, its layout is crisp and stylish and the quality is exceptional.

This is a book for anyone with an interest in space to drool over.

Score: 5/5

Jenny Winder is a freelance science writer, astronomer and broadcaster

The Glass Universe
Dava Sobel
(4th Estate)

12 - glass universe

Glass plate negatives of the sky systematically taken over 75 years do not sound like the makings of a gripping read.

In Dava Sobel’s hands however, these plates form the grounding for a web of stories that takes us into observatory life at the turn of the twentieth century.

This is a book about women in astronomy like few I have ever seen.

It tells the story not of a single pioneer, but of an observatory and the group of women who worked there.

In doing so, it bypasses the need to identify heroic acts to justify their fame.

Instead, names that today we honour as pioneers – Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin and Henrietta Swan Leavitt – we see blossom as the observatory supported them in their careers.

The story begins in 1882 with Mrs Draper, a rich heiress meeting Harvard Observatory’s director, Edward Pickering.

Draper’s husband had spent his life photographing the spectra of stars.

Mrs Draper hoped that work could continue, and was prepared to pay for it.

Chapter by chapter we are then introduced to the women who helped fund, carry out and shape that project.

There are a few loose ends. Hertzsprung appears, joined a few pages later by Russell, yet no diagram follows.

1930 comes and goes with no mention of Pluto.

These, however, are minor quibbles and very much an aside from the main story, which is told beautifully.


Score: 5/5

Dr Emily Winterburn is the author of The Stargazer’s Guide: How to Read our Night Sky