Cosmos: The Infographic Book Of Space by Stuart Lowe & Chris North (book review).

There is one great problem with doing visual books about the cosmos. The universe is a big place and to do a pictorial look at size and distance and everything becomes dots and relative distances. It’s either that or publish a book so large that you would have difficulty turning the pages. So you have no choice but to work at tiny scale and this book isn’t small anyway. There are many pages that I wish more thought had been done with the colour schemes as anyone with mild colour blindness might have problems seeing the graphic information. The latter parts of the book do better in that regard but I suspect some people might give up before then which would be a pity.


When it comes to objects that come down to nearer planetary size things come into their own. The biggest asteroids are shown in comparable size, you do get an idea of how big they are. Fortunately, the really big ones will stay within the asteroid belt so no problem of them flying our way. Only a couple sample celebrity names of asteroids are given and it seems even Sheldon Cooper got one. I wonder if there’s any statistics for showing the number of real and fictional people named asteroids? The relative sizes of the various moons to the planets they orbit was something I was familiar with and I’m still puzzled how Pluto can have held onto Charon for so long.

On a more man-size level, you do get a lot of other information like your survival chances if your spacesuit gets a puncture. Looking at the amount of garbage left on the Moon by Apollo 11, I did remind myself that some things were left to reduce the module’s weight and give them a little more fuel for the orbital rendezvous. Even so, if we ever choose to have bases on the Moon, such items are going to be seen as relics than garbage.

Seeing the relative size of our manned space stations, although the International Space Station looks the biggest, it’s largely because of the solar panels. The manned section is only about double that of MIR or the Chinese Space Station. A demonstration of how much liviong space is at a premium even in Earth orbit.

If you want to know how high you can jump on the various planets and moons, there is a graphic demonstration although I doubt if you’d want to do it on several of them and still land afterwards. Likewise, seeing the time it takes to travel cosmic distances is a sharp reminder for Hard SF of our limitations as to where we can go. At the back of the book, there is an interesting graphic of how far our TV signals have gone and with what we know about which stars have planets, it does raise interesting questions as to whether any sentient species can translate the signals, assuming they exist in our star neighbourhood.

Seeing the placement of space-telescopes is quite an eye-opener, more so because there is far more than the Hubble in orbit. Meanwhile, on Earth, telescopes have been around a long time with only three that have been turned off.

When it comes to the sun, something I hadn’t realised before was that it isn’t the centre of the Solar system. Planetary orbits are affected by various gravities and attractions and in 3D, they are actually off-centre to our favourite star. You might need to rethink what forces are in play or, better still, we definitely need 3D depictions to examine our universe to put things into perspective.

If you want to throw away the astrology card in a convincing way, just look at the spatial distances for the constellation of Orion the Hunter. Not so much joining the dots if you apply 3D and create an entirely different shape.

Probably the most spectacular two-pager in the entire book is seeing our galaxy in gamma-ray, infra-red, microwave and x-ray, showing how the various radiations change the complexion of the sky. Further along, there are eight different ways to gauge distance of various stars which allows us to confirm their accuracy. That’s just in case you think astronomers only use one way.

What really comes into its own for researching SF writers is the demonstrations of how astronomers determine which stars have planets and there are six examples here of what they look for and then focus on. In our ‘neighbourhood’, six stars with planetary systems within the Goldilocks habitable zone are shown. Whether they also exhibit life, though, is another question. Considering that its only a few years ago that people weren’t sure how many stars have planets to the reveals we have today, it’s an impressive step.

The plaque on the Pioneer probes is given a detailed explanation as to what it represents. Something that has always struck me is the man figure holding his hand up as a greeting could be misinterpreted. When you bear in mind how in other parts of the world where people read right to left, the gesture could mean something entirely different to an alien.

Seeing the distribution of elements for Earth and the Solar system in general in pictorial form shows a level of consistency with the sun’s output which shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s only when you get down to Earth that there’s a better distribution of elements. When you compare it to that of the human body, we only take a small proportion even of these.

Although I’ve been critical of some of the depictions, books like this are a good way to grasp useful information in visual format and I do hope this is done with other subjects as well. I should also point out that my comments above are for things that are most telling to me. There’s far more than that and you have to interpret the visual evidence with what they say about the cosmos but it builds a mine of information.

GF Willmetts

October 2015

(pub: Aurum Press. 224 illustrated medium hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK), $34.99 (US), $41.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-78131-450-0)

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