The 12 books of Christmas 2018

Looking for a Christmas present for the astronomer or space fan in your life, or in need of a good read to take you away from the festive hubbub? We present our favourite 12 books from the past year of reviews in BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

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UK astronaut Tim Peake pictured on the International Space Station tackling Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, after which his Principia mission was named. Image Credits: ESA/NASA


A Galaxy of Her Own – Amazing Stories of Women in Space
Libby Jackson

001 - A Galaxy of Her Own

“With hard work and determination anyone can do anything,” says Libby Jackson in her introduction.

It sounds obvious, but it’s a message easily forgotten in today’s world of instant gratification and celebrity.

Jackson is true to the statement: in sixth form at school she wrote to NASA for work experience and ended up in Mission Control at Houston observing shuttle launch-and-abort practice scenarios.

Jackson is now programme manager for Human Spaceflight and Microgravity at the UK Space Agency.

Her book about 50 inspirational women who have contributed to our knowledge and exploration of space is beautifully presented and should appeal to all ages and genders.

She devotes a spread to each woman, with a page telling their story and colourful, individualistic portraits produced by students at the London College of Communication.

It starts with the ‘Origins of Space’ – a reminder that women fighting to forge roles in STEM is no new concept.

There’s Émilie du Châtelet, the eighteenth century French mathematician and physicist who worked all hours to finish her translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica just days before giving birth to her daughter, only to die six days later.

And we meet Mary Jackson, who in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.

That she had to get a special permit to attend evening classes at university is a sobering reminder of the additional and enormous barriers to women of colour.

Most crucially though, if this book is meant to inspire the next generation, especially girls, I think it ably achieves this.

My six-year-old daughter was all over the review copy the moment it landed on my doormat.

“I love it,” she said, “because it’s all about space, and I love space!”

And if daughters need role models, a favourite section of the book was Jackson’s profile on Eileen Collins, the first and only woman to command a Space Shuttle mission.

Of Collins she writes: “Her three-year-old daughter, Bridget, thought that all mums flew spacecraft.”


Shaoni Bhattacharya is a science writer and journalist

Star Theatre: The Story of the Planetarium
William Firebrace
(Reaktion Books)

002 - Star Theatre

Star Theatre presents the history of the planetarium, from the first modern one built on the roof of the Zeiss optics factory in eastern Germany, to its more recent counterparts in countries across the globe.

The author explores earlier mechanisms for depicting the Solar System, before turning his attention to the evolution of the planetarium as we know it today.

This includes the intricate design of the buildings themselves and the complicated projection systems housed within them.

We learn about the creation of the parabolic ferrocement dome over the Moscow Planetarium, which had a ratio of shell thickness to internal volume less than that of an egg.

And we learn about the construction of the Wolfsburg Planetarium in Germany, which was built by Zeiss in return for ten thousand Volkswagen Golf cars for the citizens of the GDR.

Star Theatre provides a masterful and well-researched examination of the architectural heritage and cultural significance of planetariums, such as the role of the Zeiss projector in fostering relations between Soviet-controlled East Germany and the rest of the world.

It also contemplates how the development of planetariums has been influenced – indeed, challenged – by discoveries in astronomy such as black holes, gravitational waves and the theory of dark matter, as well as the growing capabilities of projection technology.

The book does, however, take a while to get started.

But it improves once the author gets onto the subject of modern planetariums and those who have designed them.

And it comes alive when considering the architecture of planetariums and the buildings in which they reside.

It also includes some excellent images.


Reviewer: Simon Perks is a science writer and amateur astronomer

Catching Stardust – Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System
Natalie Starkey
(Bloomsbury Sigma)

03 - Catching Stardust

It seems we may owe a lot to comets and asteroids – our very existence perhaps!

Not only is it likely that one of these killed off the dinosaurs, allowing small mammals to prosper and ultimately evolve into human beings, but they may also have provided Earth with the necessary raw materials for life to begin and thrive in the first place.

Scarily, if one were to impact today, it might also initiate our demise.

With the intention of promoting the study of comets and asteroids to further understand their role in the development of life, to aid on-going efforts to avoid disaster if one were on a collision course with Earth, and generally learn more about how our Solar System evolved, this book provides a great introduction to these small celestial bodies.

It summarises what we know about them, describes current efforts to locate and monitor them and even discusses the feasibility of mining them.

What stands out about this book, however, are the chapters dedicated to describing two recent missions to comets: Stardust and Rosetta.

Natalie Starkey’s experience working on these missions has enabled her to provide clear and insightful descriptions of them and their results, with a few wonderfully random details thrown in (such as Earth-based uses of Rosetta instrumentation).

The book would have benefited from additional images to accompany sample descriptions but the well-written, clear narrative makes Catching Stardust an enjoyable read that effectively argues the case for more missions to study comets and asteroids.


Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz is a lecturer in space science at the University of Kent

Astroquizzical – A Curious Journey through our Cosmic Family Tree
Dr Jillian Scudder
(Icon Books)

04 - astroquizzicalcover

Dr Jillian Scudder is an astrophysicist and author of the popular astronomy blog Astroquizzical.

This book represents Scudder’s first venture into science popularisation (in book form) and is based on the online resource.

Although the blog comprises an archive of question-and-answer discussions, the author has decided to expand the blog content into a chapter-based narrative.

Scudder seeks to provide the lay reader with a thorough grounding in the basics of astronomical knowledge, at a level even the casual reader can appreciate.

She delivers an informative guide to modern astronomy, with most scientific terms or principles adequately explained, and with easy-to-follow language.

The writing is fluid and direct and the subject material surveyed with skill and character.

Beginning with a survey of our human interaction with the night sky, Scudder delves into the mysteries of the Moon and the Solar System in separate chapters, and then concentrates on ‘Stars’, ‘Stellar Deaths’, ‘Galaxies’ and finally ‘The Universe at Large’.

Oddly, but perhaps because of the bias in the blog question submissions, almost half the book concerns Solar System objects.

Here and there the author presents a ‘thought experiment’ where a particular peculiarity of astrophysics – a ‘what-if’ scenario – is given a thought-provoking treatment.

These are welcome diversions from the main text and retain much more of that meandering but entertaining flavour found in the online blog.


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

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide
Jim Bell

05 - UltimateInterplanetary

The first aeroplane flew a little over a century ago, and today it seems that the sky has no limit at all. Now with hundreds of prepaid tickets for suborbital spacecraft rides, humanity is taking its first steps toward space tourism.

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide is written like a book for 2218, but it is not the futuristic novel of a dreamer.

As an astronomer and planetary scientist, Jim Bell has based his book on scientific data of Solar System exploration missions.

At the same time, he is dreaming big, believing that someday humanity will become a multi-planetary species.

“You can reach the Moon using traditional chemical propulsion technology quite similar to what brought the first astronauts to the Moon in three days, but you can cut down significantly on the transit time by using newer technology – nuclear propulsion engines,” is one piece of advice the author gives not only future travellers, but also contemporary readers seeking technological solutions for space travel challenges.

This guide offers something for all kind of travellers, from hikers who would love to climb the tallest volcano in the Solar System to couples who would like to experience a romantic dinner surrounded by a billion house-sized crystals of ice.

The text is illustrated with stunning pictures, retro NASA pull-out posters, clear tables of geology, physics and a history of exploration.

It provides useful icons to illustrate historical sites, destinations with high radiation levels or long travel times, and also gives information on what to wear.

On Venus, for example, “if you want to go out onto the surface, you’ll have to learn how to operate a hotsuit, which is a sort of cross between an old Apollo-style space suit and a highly reflective metallic coat made out of titanium”.

This book is perfect for those who already feel like a space tourist, but also for anyone who believes that the Solar System is a beautiful place worth exploring. It is definitely not written 200 years too early, because it makes the reader feel like packing already.

For those who want to travel far and dream big, it is right on time.


Sandra Kropa is a science journalist and writer

Wonders of the Night Sky
Bob King
(Page Street Publishing)

06 - Wonders

To a beginner, the night sky can seem like a daunting place and it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed.

This book, written by experienced astronomer and blogger Bob King, provides a clear guide to a wide range of the most interesting objects that are easily accessible either by naked eye, binoculars or a small telescope.

It’s structured around a ‘bucket list’ of 57 night-time wonders (both natural and man-made) chosen by the author, who explains the visual and scientific interest of each object and gives advice on how best to view it.

King’s writing is friendly and assured and his expertise shines as brightly as the full Moon.

Around half of the list are bodies within the Solar System, but the range extends from the International Space Station out to the galaxy group M81/M82.

Some objects such as the Moon appear several times so that the reader can fully appreciate all their different aspects.

The book is aimed at an American audience, so British readers will find it harder to see those objects listed that are only visible during our short summer nights or from more southern latitudes.

The epilogue is a touching tribute to the King’s pet dog, whose insistence on being walked at night led to the author discovering so many astronomical sights and musing on the nature of canine time versus cosmological time.

Of course, any bucket list is subjective, but this one showcases objects that present a variety of astronomical phenomena and is persuasive in its enthusiasm.


Pippa Goldschmidt is an astronomy and science writer.

Photographing the Deep Sky: Images in Space and Time
Chris Baker
(White Owl)

07 - Photographing the Deep Sky cover

This is not a book about astrophotography, but about light.

Trapping the light from deep-sky delights and setting them out in order of how far away from the Solar System they are, noted astrophotographer Chris Baker presents over 60 stunning full-page images in the context of space and time.

The book opens with his fabulous image of the Pleiades star cluster at 440 lightyears away and ends with the galaxy cluster Abell 2065 at over a million lightyears distant.

Baker’s photos are split between images from within the Milky Way and images from beyond our Galaxy.

It’s hard to pick the best images, but his Bubble Nebula and his colleague Sara Wager’s blisteringly detailed Orion Nebula are both stunning, as is Baker’s side-on spiral galaxy NGC 4565 and the Messier 13 globular cluster in Hercules.

The images get pride of place, of course, but a chapter describing what Earth was like when the light of these objects started its journey to his camera adds a powerful sense of ‘deep time’ to the deep sky.

The author’s observatory is in Spain, which necessarily ignores the deep sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.

Perhaps Baker could have inserted a ‘northern hemisphere edition’ sub-title to make that clear.

However, it’s impossible not to deeply admire Baker’s book not only for its mesmerizing images, but for its creative yet sensible structure and its clear, concise explanations.

It all contributes to this coffee table-style book giving Chris Baker’s jaw-dropping astrophotography plenty of room to shine.


Jamie Carter is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide.

Matt Fitch, Chris Baker, Mike Collins

08 - Apollo

It is rare to be swept away on a flying carpet of excitement, but that is exactly the breathless, non-stop pace created in this graphic novel.

Impeccably accurate dialogue and exquisite imagery crafted by storyboard artist Mike Collins combine to regale us with the story of Apollo 11, the first piloted landing on the Moon in July 1969.

Against a backdrop of political jealousy and racial and military tensions, the authors weave an account that is thought-provoking and unashamedly patriotic.

Its beautifully drawn portraiture is so true to life that for diehard Apollo fans even lesser-known characters scarcely require identification.

Neil Armstrong imagines his long-dead daughter in his mind’s eye on the Sea of Tranquility, whilst the dissatisfaction of Buzz Aldrin’s overbearing father betrays a thinly-veiled disgust at being second on the Moon.

A cynical strain of tragedy lies at the novel’s heart.

Its imagery darkens with the Apollo 1 fire, which snatched three astronauts’ lives, and a scratchy rendition of their grieving comrades reveals their angst at a race to the Moon that was being run too fast.

Tormented president Richard Nixon is haunted by the memory of JFK and beset by America’s war-dead in Vietnam.

If Apollo 11 succeeds, he knows history will laud JFK.

But if it fails, history will curse Nixon.

Apollo 11 seized and held the world’s stage and even today its magnetic pull on the human spirit remains undiminished.

This wonderful graphic novel is a testament to the mission’s enduring legacy.


Ben Evans is an astronomy writer and author of several books on human spaceflight.

Safely to Earth
Jack Clemons

09 - Safely_to_Earth_RGB

Jack Clemons began work as part of the engineering team supporting NASA space missions in 1968, three days after the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon.

He was tasked with developing, writing and testing computer software to control the Command Modules’ re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

At the time, this was done using a slide-rule, as the first hand-held calculator wasn’t available until 1972 and cost the best part of £2,000.

Computer programs were handwritten in FORTRAN computer language and typed onto cards in a punch card machine (one line of program per card).

Clemons’ memoir follows the ground teams through all the subsequent Apollo missions, including a detailed account of the Apollo 13 rescue, as well as the Skylab and Space Shuttle missions, up to the mid-1980s, and from the ridiculously primitive Command Module onboard Display and Keyboard device (DSKY) to the five flight computers aboard the Space Shuttle.

The team needed to anticipate every eventuality, calculating all the variables such as changes in geographic location and angle of re-entry.

Even the time of year and the weather had to be allowed for, with alternative back up plans provided.

The margins for error were tiny.

In computer programming, the industry average is 10-12 errors for every 1,000 lines of code.

Over the thirty-year Space Shuttle program, the error rate for computer code developed by IBM for the Onboard Flight Software went from 0.8 errors per 1,000 down to less than 1 error per 5,000 lines of code.

That is closer to error free than any large complex software system before or since!

This book is not just for computer geeks.

If you have seen (and loved as much as I did) Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13, you will love this insider’s tale of human space exploration from the point of view of the team back on planet Earth.

Why should the astronauts get all the glory?


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

A Day at the Space Museum
Tom Adams, Josh Lewis
(Templar Publishing)

10 - Day in Space Museum cover

I tend to approach pop-up books with caution, not just because they can be rather fragile, but also because the pop-up feature can sometimes be little more than a gimmick.

With A Day at the Space Museum that’s not the case.

The book has seven very colourful pop-up spreads, covering topics from the Solar System to cosmic explosions, and from a history of space travel to living on Mars.

The bold illustrations are very clear, and I can verify that the mechanics of the 3D structures can withstand the attention of a two-year-old!

As one expects with a pop-up book, with very thick, multi-layered pages the total amount of content is relatively limited given its size, but this book uses the space very wisely.

There are sections that fold out revealing the Universe on a range of scales, or pages of mini books about important figures in astronomy.

There are also little rotating wheels that explain, for example, the phases of the Moon or the stages of terraforming required for making Mars habitable.

The content is largely approachable for a younger reader (perhaps a keen 8-10 year old), though slightly older readers might find some of the concepts more accessible.

One pet peeve is the statement that we see “the Sun through the day and the Moon at night”, which is frustrating given that it’s on the page about phases of the Moon and the geometry of eclipses.

Overall, a very well-designed book that will keep its audience interested as they explore the museum.


Dr Chris North is Odgen Science Lecturer and STFC Public Engagement Fellow at Cardiff University.

Astronomy: A Visual Guide
Ian Ridpath (consultant editor)

11 - Astronomy

Astronomy. It’s hard to know where to start, but most guides go one of two ways; either with stargazing outside, or with the birth of astronomy in the Middle East 2,500 BC.

Prolific astronomy writer Ian Ridpath goes for the latter but doesn’t completely forget about the act of stargazing.

I can imagine for anyone starting out in astronomy the prospect of having to learn about the work of Nicolas Copernicus, Tyco Brahe and Galileo Galilei would be as daunting as a sky full of unknown stars, but Ridpath’s writing is sharp, succinct and always engaging.

It’s also brilliantly illustrated.

In structure and layout it’s similar to an atlas of world history: there are images, illustrations and plenty of excellent diagrams, and it’s presented in a good quality hardback slip cover.

It would make a great Christmas present.

The usual topics (in chapters ‘The Big Bang’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘Starting Observing’) are all given a double-page each, sometimes two.

After the history section is an impressive treatment of the Universe, while the section entitled ‘The Night Sky’ delves into observing.

If I have a criticism, it’s that ‘The Night Sky’ section both rushes into the need for equipment right from the off, and fills-up the latter third of the book with month-by-month star-charts and almanac information.

Some of that seems rather old fashioned in these days of smartphone apps.

Indeed, so too would the very concept of a reference book, if it wasn’t for exquisite production qualities and writing.

Together, they lend this colourful encyclopaedic effort a thoroughly accessible feel.


Jamie Carter is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide. 

Big Bang: A Ladybird Expert Book
Marcus Chown
(Michael Joseph)

12 - Big Bang

Ladybird Expert Books don’t disappoint, and neither does Big Bang by Marcus Chown.

This beautiful pocket-sized book discusses exactly what the Big Bang is, how this theory came about and how it has evolved over the years given the physical evidence, such as the ‘bolt-ons’ of dark-matter, dark-energy and inflation.

I found it remarkable that the author managed to cover everything I would expect given the title in so few pages.

I was very impressed with the thought gone in to the book, both in terms of its flow and layout.

Each page of copy is separated by a stunningly retro image, which really helps to demarcate the concepts and stop the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

At times, but not often, the wonderfully concise writing dances around the fine line of needing more explanation; however I don’t think the author ever loses the audience.

Yes the concepts are challenging, but the book does explain every term it introduces and is accessible to a non-expert.

There are also some lovely analogies throughout which I will be borrowing for the next time I introduce certain topics; my favourite being a tanker emerging from the fog to explain the epoch of last scattering.

Overall, this book is a nice introduction to The Big Bang and one that you can read in a short time; perhaps like me on my commute to work.

But be warned, I think this book will stimulate your interest in cosmology and leave you eager to find out more!



Dr Laura Nuttall is a Sêr Cymru MSCA COFUND fellow at Cardiff University and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.