Book Review 2010 #39: Sizing Up the Universe

The last book of the year is one I received only a couple of days ago…


How big is the universe and the things that are in it? You can throw around all sorts of numbers. 93 million miles is the distance to the Sun. Jupiter has a diameter of 142,800 kilometers. Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away. It is 2 million light years to the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest object visible with the naked eye.
But what does all that really mean? How do you wrap your way around those sizes and compare them to more familiar sizes and distances? J Richard Gott and Robert J Vanderbei, in National Geographic’s Sizing Up the Universe, have set themselves this tall order–explain to the reader just how big things are, and tie it to the every day so that readers can get a handle around it. Also add in a gorgeous visual guide to the heavens, from star charts to pictures ranging from Neil Armstrong to the Cosmic Microwave Background, and you have Sizing Up the Universe.
The book starts off with apparent sizes of objects in the sky, starting with the Moon and moving its way upward. While I have seen many books explain size in a more conventional manner (and the book later does delve into the real size of objects), the authors obvious interest in astronomy and backyard sky viewing give them a perspective as to the apparent size of stellar objects that was illuminating even to a astronomy enthusiast like myself. I had no idea, for example, that the apparent size of the small dim smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy is actually much, much larger than that.
The book then launches itself into viewing the night skies, as a way to bridge the previous section with the subsequent ones, and again showing the astronomical interest of the authors. The charts in this book can be used to find objects in the sky in all four seasons.
Next, the book concerns itself with the distances and sizes of objects, and goes through the routine and familiar (to me) story of Eratosthenes, who discovered (roughly) the size of the Earth, and the efforts throughout history to find the distance to and sizes of the Moon, and the Sun. The authors then use those as scales to map distances all the way to the edge of the Universe. A centerpiece of the book is a gate-fold four page logarithmic size chart of the distances from the Earth that you may have seen on the internet.
Finally, in the tradition of the “Powers of Ten”, the book uses a 1:1 size picture of Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon, and then proceeds to pictorially move up to larger and larger scales, until the entire universe is encompassed.
Amazing pictures, comprehensive, intelligently written but not written down to the viewer, Sizing Up the Universe is eminently designed for those teenagers and adults who have ever looked at the sky and wondered just how big and how far away the stars and planets *really* are.
Highly Recommended.
Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective