Gift Ideas: Popular Astronomy Books

Credit: Ballantine Books

If you are looking for another gift idea for the holidays, maybe you should consider one of the many popular astronomy books. Here are the 10 most popular from Goodreads:

  1. Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
  2. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
  3. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, by Carl Sagan
  4. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
  5. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene
  6. The Universe in a Nutshell, by Stephen Hawking
  7. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
  8. The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking
  9. Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, by Carl Sagan
  10. Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson 

It’s great to see that Carl Sagan is still educating the public so many years after his death. As with the Voyager spacecraft, his words and contributions are traveling far and wide.

Book Review: Starry Messenger Starring Neil deGrasse Tyson

Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has put out quite a few popular astronomy books over the years, including:

  • One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos (2000);
  • The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (2004);
  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007);
  • The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (2009); and
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017). 

And while he often runs into the thick of current politics in his interviews, his books tended to stick to science. His latest book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, is one of the exceptions and at least one reviewer is taking him to the woodshed.

Mr. Tyson says this in the book’s preface:

Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization. People no longer know who or what to trust. We sow hatred of others fueled by what we think is true, or what we want to be true, without regard to what is true. Cultural and political factions battle for the souls of communities and of nations. We’ve lost all sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. We’re quick with acts of aggression and slow with acts of kindness.

To The Washington Post’s Mark Whitaker, in his review titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tries Punditry, with Less-than-stellar Results,” Mr. Tyson may be going a little too boldly into the political realm. Mr. Whitaker writes:

When Tyson sticks to his orbit of expertise, he remains as engaging as ever, like the professor of a popular college survey course that students might take to satisfy their science requirement… Yet while Tyson extols the virtue of a skeptical mind-set in scientific inquiry, he often comes off as none-too-skeptical in his discussion of how that mind-set can be applied to human and political affairs.

Just as Mr. Tyson followed and updated Carl Sagan’s work, such as the remake of the television series Cosmos, he may be trying to update Dr. Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Dr. Sagan was concerned about the future of mankind and its silly prejudices, which he also illustrated in his fictional book Contact. In The Demon-Haunted World, Dr. Sagan wrote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

He wrote that almost 27 years ago and we are now living in the time of his children and grandchildren. His predictions seem true enough in a time of Facebook and “fake news,” as well as various denials throughout the world, from elections to climate change.

Maybe Mr. Tyson’s book is far from perfect, but if he can really continue Dr. Sagan’s work of chipping away at opinions masquerading as facts, then he is pursuing the same noble path even if it he hits a few bumps along the way. We may not be able to save what we have if we continue with our games for another 27 years.

Podcast/Book Review: The Mission: A True Story

Credit: NASA

A recent episode of the Astronomy Cast podcast recommended a number of books to read this summer, including David W. Brown’s book The Mission: A True Story. It highlights all the efforts to make the soon-to-be-launched Europa Clipper mission a reality. Below is the book blurb by Harper Collins:

In the spirit of Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, The Mission is an exuberant master class of creative nonfiction that reveals how a motley, determined few expanded the horizon of human achievement.

When scientists discovered the first ocean beyond Earth, they had two big questions: “Is it habitable?” and “How do we get there?” To answer the first, they had to solve the second, and so began a vivacious team’s twenty-year odyssey to mount a mission to Europa, the ocean moon of Jupiter.

Standing in their way: NASA, fanatically consumed with landing robots on Mars; the White House, which never saw a science budget it couldn’t cut; Congress, fixated on going to the moon or Mars—anywhere, really, to give astronauts something to do; rivals in academia, who wanted instead to go to Saturn; and even Jupiter itself, which guards Europa in a pulsing, rippling radi­ation belt—a halo of death whose conditions are like those that follow a detonated thermonuclear bomb.

The Mission is the Homeric, never-before-told story of modern space exploration, and a magnificent portrait of the inner lives of scientists who study the solar system’s mysterious outer planets. David W. Brown chronicles the remarkable saga of how Europa was won, and what it takes to get things done—both down here, and up there.

I think it is safe to say that every space mission goes through a gauntlet these days and is lucky to remain intact at the other end. The James Webb Space Telescope started in the 1990s and only saw the light of day (on a distant exoplanet) earlier this year. Not everyone may have the stomach for the sausage-making behind these missions, but you may want to read this tale if you are looking for modern-day drama in the halls of government and academia that can lead to something meaningful.

Credit: Harper Collins

Recommended Reading: Kim Stanley Robinson in The New Yorker


The January 31st edition of The New Yorker has an article written by Joshua Rothman where he interviews Kim Stanley Robinson they hike through the Sierra mountains. The article,”Best-Case Scenario,” covers a lot of ground and has its ups and downs (sorry, I could not help myself). The Sierras offer a nice setting for experiencing the beauty of this strange planet while also scaring the reader about what may be lost as the hikers deal with the smoke of distant forest fires.

The two most prominent books discussed in the article are Mr. Stanley’s recent The Ministry for the Future and his 2015 novel Aurora, allowing the reader to appreciate both the uniqueness of this world as well as attempts by his characters to reach more distant worlds. I enjoyed reading both Aurora and Mr. Stanley’s Mars trilogy, but I should probably spend some time reading his works focusing on planet Earth. Mr. Stanley has made it clear that we need to preserve the one place in the universe that we know can host us. As he stated in BoingBoing back in 2015, “…there is no Planet B. Earth is our only home.”

With regard to expanding into our galaxy, in the same article he stated:

I’m not saying we shouldn’t go into space; we should. We should send people to the moon, and Mars, and the asteroids, and every place we can in the solar system, putting up stations and swapping humans in and out of them. This is not only a beautiful thing to do, but useful in helping us to design a long-term relationship with Earth itself. Space science is an Earth science. The solar system is our neighborhood. But the stars are too far away.

Mr. Stanley has spoken far and wide for some time about his novels, his views on space travel, and his concerns regarding our future. For more on all of this, you can try his Facebook page or this unofficial site. And you may want to check out some other articles in The New Yorker as well, such as this May 2021 piece, “Is Mars Ours?