This blog post is part of our regular “From the BAA Journal” series. This series features a selection of articles, news, reviews and letters from the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, published six times a year.
The scientific exploration of Mars, by Fredric W. Taylor
Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-521-82956-4. pp xiii+348, £30.00 (hbk).
Despite the broader approach suggested by its title, the focus of this book is firmly on recent and current exploration of Mars by spacecraft. Although it does provide an introductory overview of the history of earth-based observation, this is cursory in the extreme and the reader might well wish for a fuller treatment of the excitement, achievements and misperceptions of the age of telescopic observation of the Red Planet. Perhaps it was felt that such a treatment had already been provided in William Sheehan’s 1996 monograph The planet Mars: a history of observation & discovery, but a more nuanced coverage here would have more effectively contextualised the remarkable achievements of Mars exploration in the space age.
Written for a broad audience of interested scientists, amateur astronomers and general readers, the volume steers a judicious course that carefully combines scientific insight and accessibility. Where it is at its strongest is in the identification and explanation of the key scientific objectives that have driven the exploration of Mars by spacecraft, as well as in the authoritative assessment of the extent to which such objectives have been achieved with regard to our understanding of the Martian surface, atmosphere, climate and potential to support life, either now or in the past. Few are better positioned than Fredric Taylor to write such a book. As well as being Halley Professor of Physics at Oxford, he has been closely involved in solar system exploration by spacecraft, having spent many years in the Space Science division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as having participated in the planning of Europe’s Mars Express mission. As a result, he is in a privileged position to set the science within the larger framework of political and practical considerations, as well as managerial and budgetary constraints. Although much of this will be new to most readers, one nevertheless wonders whether too much space is devoted to the deliberations of working groups and to concept missions that, quite literally, never got off the ground.
Taylor ends his account with a lengthy speculative section on likely plans for Mars exploration, both manned and unmanned, in the near-to-mid future. Here he emphasises the uncertainty of his predictions and their susceptibility to political and economic whims. This is wise indeed, for the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation programme at the very moment of this book’s publication will have done little to advance the cause of the scientific exploration of Mars.
There are a few instances of rushed proof-reading and miscaptioned illustrations, but overall this volume is beautifully produced and engagingly written. It may be read with profit by all interested in the ongoing study of Mars.
Reviewed by Bill Leatherbarrow, Director of the BAA Lunar Section and an active observer of the Moon and planets.
A Question and Answer Guide to Astronomy, by Pierre-Yves Bely, Carol Christian & Jean-René Roy
Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-521-18066-5. Pp xiv+280, £18.19 (pbk).
Here is a very worthy successor to such classic compilations as Asimov’s Please Explain (1973) and Pickering’s 1001 Questions Answered About Astronomy (revised by Moore, 1975), which explored astronomy through the device of question and answer, and fired the imagination of many a budding amateur, this reviewer among them.
In 250 questions, all accurately and readably answered, using non-technical language and bang-up-to-date illustrations, this book guides the reader through the cosmos, from the earliest times and the most basic principles, to the more exotic discoveries and theories of modern times. Its world-wide view includes such topics as Islamic astronomy, the work of famous astronomers of many nationalities, a ‘world tour’ of the largest ground-based optical telescopes, and a visit to the Chicxulub Crater.
Predictably perhaps, there are sections dealing with stars, planets, the Moon and the universe in general, but there are also welcome forays into other fields, for example our Earth itself (a planet not well covered by some ‘general guides’), extraterrestrial life, the history of astronomy, and the ins and outs of the practice of amateur astronomy.
The Question and Answer Guide is a mine of illustrations, mostly in colour, and excellently reproduced. They are reassuringly small, allowing the text to expand around them and speak for itself: it is not always true that a picture is worth a thousand words, if it fills most of a page!
The fact that the authors are, respectively, an engineer specialising in telescope design, an astrophysicist, and a senior scientist at the Gemini Observatory, ensures that the underlying principles of astronomy are solidly covered, while the contents of the cosmos and our methods of exploring it are not neglected.
Can enthusiasts, perhaps new to astronomy, resist a guide that tells them how to go about finding their own meteorite collection; explains string theory for the uninformed; discusses light pollution and its depredations; and tells them what to do if they discover something ‘new’ in the sky above?
An excellent bibliography and website list complete a very interesting book that ought to have a place on the shelves of astronomers, whatever their level of acquaintance with the noble science.
Reviewed by Bob Mizon, planetarium operator, and co-ordinator of the BAA Campaign for Dark Skies.