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Cosmic magic

STARS AND PLANETS By David H Levy Macdonald Pounds 9.99

BLACK HOLES By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest Dorling Kindersley Pounds 9.99.

Watch the skies! As we approach the millennium, the prospect of a bright comet, a total eclipse and a meteor storm will turn eyes towards the heavens. These books aim to help us understand what is out there. Stars and Planets enters the familiar orbit occupied by astronomy books for children, and Black Holes tackles a cosmic enigma for older readers.

David Levy, co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy which hit Jupiter, devotes much of Stars and Planets to the solar system. Pen-portraits of the planets are drawn against dramatic illustrations of our neighbouring worlds. The presentation is engaging but can be confusing: a description of Mercury begins against an impression of the surface of Venus.

The sections on deep space offer description rather than explanation. The evolution of stars, for example, ignores the crucial role of gravity. Most of the illustrations are precise but it is annoying to see naked eye stars with diffraction spikes. Photos are well chosen, though one claiming to be a group of galaxies shows the Pleiades star cluster - ironic in itself, as star clusters are not featured.

Although it carries frustrations, Stars and Planets is a pleasant guide to the solar system and beyond. But, for explanations, pupils would be well advised to move on to Russell Stannard's Universe.

In Black Holes, Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest explore the origins, nature and effects of objects that link mainstrean astronomy with science fiction. This is no heavy text, but science Dorling Kindersley style - a lively study using bite-size chunks of information to remove some of the mystery, but none of the magic, of a cosmic conundrum.

Gravity's ultimate triumph produces black holes when massive stars die. This is theory: detecting the real thing is another matter and we need X-ray satellite eyes to find them. Their existence established, a pull-out spread reveals the structure of a black hole and we follow an astronaut as she falls through the event horizon.

Black holes have cosmological significance too, as the central mass of galaxies and the power house of the puzzling quasars. A final leap introduces the concept that we might be living inside a black hole - the universe itself may be the ultimate gravity trap.

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, with the help of Luciano Corbella's superb artwork, make this fascinating but abstruse topic accessible. We may not reach the level of understanding of a Hawkins, but we gain a vivid appreciation of the anatomy and significance of an astronomical enigma.

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