Comets! – visitors from deep space

By David J. Eicher Reviewed by Roger Dymock
Cambridge University Press 2013xvi + 208 pages
Price £17.99 (pbk)ISBN:978-11076-22777

rvw eicher

This book explains how our understanding of what comets are and where they fit in the Solar System has developed over the centuries. How to observe and image these objects is covered in the concluding chapters. The style of writing suggests that the book is aimed at the absolute beginner or novice amateur astronomer, but whether it is suitable for such readers is another question.

The author is editor in chief of Astronomy magazine and has written 17 books, mostly on the American Civil War and deep sky objects. This is his first book on the small bodies of the Solar System and adds little if anything to our knowledge of the subject. The opening paragraph of the Acknowledgements chapter indicates that the book was rushed into print to capitalise on the assumption that comet C/2012 S1 ISON would be a great comet; ISON promised much but ultimately fizzled out.

The structure of the book leaves much to be desired and perhaps betrays its hasty preparation. For example Chapter 3, ‘What are comets?’ is sandwiched between chapters on ‘Great Comets’ and ‘Comets of the modern era’. One chapter begins with the words ‘The first step in understanding anything about a comet…’ but this is Chapter 6.

Poor quality black and white images are scattered throughout the book, many bearing no relationship to and not cross referenced by the adjacent text. The choice of colour plates is questionable, with three (including the cover) very similar images of comet Hale-Bopp – two being obtained on the same date. The impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter also warrants two very similar images.

Not one diagram or table is included which are very significant omissions. Chapters describing what comets are and their place in the Solar System cry out for such visual aids. The chapter on how to observe and draw comets would have been much improved with examples of drawings made at the telescope.

The author writes of Pliny the Elder ‘…was not a scientist but rather a collector of information, good, bad and indifferent. His hodgepodge of cometary facts included some glimpses of interest and truth…’ In my view that is a reasonable summary of this book.

As you might have guessed I cannot recommend this book. There are several other introductory books on comets available which would serve both the beginner and the more experienced amateur more effectively.

Roger is an active member of the Comet Section with responsibilities for mentoring and outreach. His website is at <>.

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