“A book, too, can be a star…

posted in: Louie Stowell, Peter Allen | 15

...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…

Can you believe people travlled through space in this? Credit: NASA TV

…the emergence of astronauts in training for a mission to mars after 520 days confined in a simulated space ship,

Russian "cosmonaut" emerging from practice journety to Mars. Credit: Oleg Voloshin/AFP/Getty Images

…and the launch of the Curiosity rover to actually land on Mars have all happened in the last few weeks.

The Mars Curiosity rover takes off from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V rocket. Credit: Rex Features

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.

M running through space!

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
Mercury 4866 km 6.9mm
Venus 12 106 km 17.3mm
Earth 12 742 km 18.3
Mars 6760 km 9.7mm
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!

J planet hopping

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:

  • The Solar System (8 planet version) by Tom Knight
  • You Are My Solar System by Me and Peter John
  • Space Song by Milkshake
  • Outer Space by Jetta and the Jellybeans (though this still includes Pluto as a planet)
  • The entire album The Final Funktier by Recess Monkey
  • How Many Planets? by They Might Be Giants

  • Other projects which would go well alongside reading The Story of Astronomy and Space include:

  • Exploring the NASA website. NASA also has a tremendous set of pages specifically for kids. They’re great for browsing, for homework, for games and also for activities.
  • Investigating moon craters like we did in this post
  • Catching some real star dust (or rather, some micrometeorites). Here’s an article about how to do this outside your own home.

  • 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.

    This week’s host for Nonfiction Monday is Camille at A Curious This. Do click on through to see what other books are included in this week’s celebration of children’s nonfiction books.

    15 Responses

    1. choxbox

      Lovely Zoe. You are, as my 6-yr old would say, an ideas factory 🙂

      In our awesome planetarium in Bangalore (which has an entry fee of a princely Rs.20) we have a machine that will print out your weight on all the planets as well as on the moon. Kids love it!

    2. sandhya

      Great post, Zoe. Book seems perfect for the recent astronomy enthusiast at home. I had reviewed 3 books for CROCUS this year, Zoo in the sky by Jaqueline Mitton, A traveler’s guide to the Solar System, and a biofraphy of Kalpana Chawla for children, the Indian born astronaut who perished in the Columbia disaster. http://www.saffrontree.org/2011/10/up-above-world-so-high.html

      We have enjoyed two other Usborne books in the same series- The Story of Exploration and The Story of Painting, and I’m sure this would be a great addition.

      • Zoe

        I found your comment Sandhya! For some reason it had ended up in spam 🙁 Thanks for the link – it’s a great round up post.

    3. Zoe

      Hi Stacey, I’m honoured if my enthusiasm is contagious! Do let me know if you try out either scale model yourself with the kids.

      Hi Choxbox, Can I please visit the planetarium with you? 🙂

    4. Myra from GatheringBooks

      Oh Zoe, this is such an amazing amazing post. So much thought, careful planning, deliberation and lotsandlotsoflove are required to develop something as informative, as rich, and as elegantly-written as this one. While I confess to not having the same level of fascination as you do (you’re a league of your own), I still find astronomy, outer space, the stars, the universe in its entirety – to be different streaks of awesome. I know just the right kid who would love this particular book. Thanks for sharing this.

      • Zoe

        Hi Myra, yes, lots and lots of love is spot on – I love writing posts like this where the topic is so fascinating and the book has been a great read, and I really enjoy thinking creatively about my response to the book.

    5. Roberta

      This is fabulous! You have obviously been inspired by these science books, because all of your posts about them have been wonderful.

      (By the way, I saw your tweet about Amazon. I had to smile because it is too true.)

      • Zoe

        Thanks Roberta, I have really really loved reviewing this bunch of science books and I’m very excited to see which one will win the prize. I was invited to the awards ceremony, but unfortunately can’t attend 🙁 In other news, so Amazon hasn’t made you a millionaire either?? 🙂

    6. sandhya

      Good that my comment was found.:)

      We tried to do something similar to the activities you have posted about here- well, not quite similar- We just dug up A’s exhaustive collection of balls of different sizes from her toddler days, and the big basketball she uses these days, and tried to put together a group to represent the sun and planets. It was fun!

    7. Debbie S.

      Wow, this sounds like a great book. I am going to have to check it out. Ever since reading Eight Spinning Planets my daughter has been on a space kick. She’s been picking The Atlas of the Solar System as her bedtime book for weeks. She’s only 4 and I don’t think really gets most of it but she insists!

      I’m going to have to check out the NASA page and the activity links. Thanks!

      • Zoe

        Hi Debbie, oh yes, you and your daughter must explore the NASA pages – just for their photography if nothing else!

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