...a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” I recently read this quote from Madeleine L’Engle and thought it was just perfect for a fascinating book we’ve been reading this week about astronomy The Story of Astronomy and Space by Louie Stowell and Peter Allen.
Before launching in to a review I need to disclose something. Astronomy is one of those topics that has a particularly magical hold over me. The adventure, the scale, the beauty of space – I love it, I’m amazed by it and can’t understand why everyone isn’t enthralled by it. Especially when such crazy, incredible, awe-inspiring events such as the landing of the Soyuz capsule bringing back astronauts from the International Space Station…
…the emergence of astronauts in training for a mission to mars after 520 days confined in a simulated space ship,
…and the launch of the Curiosity rover to actually land on Mars have all happened in the last few weeks.
So there you have it. I’m not impartial when it comes to reviewing books on astronomy and space. But if you and your kids haven’t yet been bitten by the space bug, will The Story of Astronomy and Space, which has been shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize be the spark that lights the fire?
Over 8 chapters The Story of Astronomy and Space covers topics as diverse as how the universe began, the physical facts about planets in our solar system, how astronomy as a science has developed, the space race, and the characteristics of different types of telescopes. The book also includes star charts (for both Northern and Southern hemispheres) and a glossary.
I thought it was great that the book covered such a wide variety of aspects of astronomy and space, and did so in an thoroughly engaging manner. There are lots of jokes (often visual) and each page has a couple of “Did you know?” style facts in the margins that are always amazing and intriguing (eg that Saturn would float if there were an ocean big enough to hold it, or why during the Second World War the British hired an astrologer to study the horoscopes of Adolf Hitler).
Louie Stowell highlights both the fact that there is still so much to learn about space and also that there is a venerable tradition of amateurs making significant contributions to this field; I think young readers will find this particularly inspiring, as there’s a palpable sense they could really make a difference to space science if they wanted to.
Richly illustrated with photos, computer generated images and cartoon style illustration each page in this book is packed with plenty to pour over. That said, of all the books shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize this one has the most (primary) school textbook-y feel to it: Solid, reliable, and without “gimmicks” (perhaps precisely what you’d expect and hope for from an Usborne book, as this is); it might be hard for this book to catch the eyes of young readers when placed next to award contenders The Icky Sticky Snot Book or How the World Works.
Inspired by this solar walk in Cleveland, Ohio, and of course The Story of Astronomy and Space, I set about creating our own version of the solar system in our back garden so the girls and I could walk amongst the planets and travel back in time.
Based on distances given in Usborne book for distances from the sun I worked out a scale based on 100 units so that anyone should be able to use it easily to adapt to whatever distance they have available to them (the side of the kitchen table, their walk to school etc).
|Planets||Distance in km||Scaled distance||Actual distance for our garden path|
|Sun to Mercury||46 million – 70 million||x – 1.52x, an average of 1.26x||17.01cm|
|Sun to Venus||108.2 million||2.35x||31.725cm|
|Sun to Earth||150 million||3.26x||44.01cm|
|Sun to Mars||228 million||4.96x||66.96cm|
|Sun to Jupiter||778.3 million||16.92x||228.42cm|
|Sun to Saturn||1400 million||30.43x||410.805 cm|
|Sun to Uranus||3000 million||65.22x||880.47cm|
|Sun to Neptune||4500 million||97.83x||1320.705cm|
Notes: From this table you can see that 46 million km = x. If you wanted to create a 1 metre long solar walkway then you’d find the Earth 3.26cm along the walk, whereas Uranus would be 65.22cm along the walk. Our Garden path is 1350 cm long, so if 1350 cm = 100x, 1x = 13.5cm, and on this basis I calculated how to fit the solar system into our garden.
Having got a basic grasp of distances between planets we compared sizes of planets. Using this calculator from the Exploratium I worked out a to-scale model of the diameter of the planets to fit on our patio. The scale of this model was NOT the same scale as our walk way (we don’t have enough space for that).
|Planet||Actual diameter||Scaled diameter|
|Sun||1 391 900 km||2000mm|
|Venus||12 106 km||17.3mm|
|Earth||12 742 km||18.3|
|Jupiter||142 984 km||205.4mm|
|Saturn||116 438 km||167.3mm|
|Uranus||46 940 km||67.4mm|
|Neptune||45 432 km||65.2mm|
I created stencils the right scaled size (all bar the sun fit on sheets of A4) and the girls then used chalk to stencil them inside the large sun I had already drawn.
Mars and Mercury are barely visible in the photo but there are small circles representing each on the patio!
These scaled versions of the solar system have proved lots of fun. Plans are now afoot to create a cardboard box rocket to fly between the planets!
Space and solar system songs we’ve enjoyed listening to recently include:
Other projects which would go well alongside reading The Story of Astronomy and Space include:
Do you have any children’s astronomy books at home? What books (fiction or non fiction) would you recommend about space?
This book is one of six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2011, an award that celebrates the best recent books that communicate science to young people. The winner will be announced on December 1st.
Disclosure: I received my copy of this book from the publisher. This review, however, reflect my own and honest opinion.