Book Review: Atlas of the Universe

The universe is such a very big place. A seemingly non-stop cavalcade of discoveries pushes its dimensions ever further. At the same time, these new findings fill this enlarging region with new colours and images. Patrick Moore in his book, ‘Atlas of the Universe’ brings many of the wonders of this space into a reader’s view. The universe is big but this book makes it all very manageable.

An atlas is meant as a guide. Most are collections of maps, usually containing geographical features of human import. These maps contain, for the most part, easily recognizable and verifiable patterns as they portray everyday objects. The universe, however, has kept its distance. Hence, space maps have a certain amount of uncertainty that we can not yet quite verify. Nevertheless, our power of observation and imagination can make a practicable atlas for the universe.Moore’s book has just this goal. It’s in a large format and each two page spread describes a particular wonder. In this way, the book is like an encyclopaedia of space with topics ranging from telescopes, rockets, lunar quadrants, and stellar clusters. As it’s the third edition, the writing is smooth and some of Moore’s light heartedness sneaks in on occasion. However, this book is more efficient than casual in nature. A large quantity of information is covered so there is very little room left for anything but space topics. Because of this jam-packed load of information, the book style does border closer to an encyclopaedia than an atlas.

Given that the book’s title includes the word ‘universe’, there’s the expectation for a broad coverage. However, this is not faithfully upheld. The book does cover most of what we know of the universe, but more than half of it is solely on our solar system. The relief maps of the main planets and Earth’s moon are interesting. In addition to this, there’s a lot more information adjoining each of the maps. For example, the typical planetary description of atmosphere, plate tectonics, and core constituents arise. With the inclusion of telescopes, probes and pertinent history, this book really tries to cover all the bases and thus looses some of the sense of an atlas.

The same broad approach is taken for subject matter out of our solar system. There’s a description, some background information and a bit on relevance. Seldom does the book go into technical detail. Also, aside from mentioning alternative ideas like panspermia, there is little reference to questions being tackled today. Because of this, the book is a relatively safe source of information when young ones start questioning about, ‘What’s out there?”. Yet, given the size of the universe, this extra-solar part of the book seems a bit thin.

The book does include an almost obligatory section of star maps. After all, this is an atlas. The format is typical, with whole sky maps, seasonal maps for the north and south and then all the constellations. These latter average about 4 for a two page spread, and the detail is not great. They will likely not be a robust sole source of data.

One slight misgiving with this book is the almost obvious nature of the upgrades. For example, Viking is still called the best probe to have viewed Mars, even though there is a page on the Spirit and Opportunity probes. Further, there are instructions on using fast film for cameras, when these days most people have or are converting to digital. Because of contents like these, there is a slight amount of disjointedness which needs a good brush-up by an editor. Other than this, the book is a veritable treasure of information and pictures suitable for the young and uninitiated who want to learn more of the universe in which Earth travels.

The universe is daunting. It goes from here to everywhere. A good guide is handy for anyone who wants to journey out. Patrick Moore in his book, Atlas of the Universe provides a wonderful guide for such an endeavour. With copious pictures and well rounded phrases, anyone can use this book to help them travel off-planet to wherever their eyes lead them.

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Review by Mark Mortimer