Get ready for blast off !

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
The universe provides infinite opportunities to engage the mind and the imagination. Jonathan Osborne reviews some of the latest titles

THE UNIVERSE - 365 Days. By Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell. Thames and Hudson pound;24.95. STIKKY NIGHT SKIES. By Laurence Holt. Four Walls Eight Windows pound;8.99. OUR SOLAR SYSTEM SERIES.

Giant Planets; Near Planets; Earth and Moon; The Sun; Far Planets; Comets and Meteors. By Robin Kerrod. Belitha Press pound;6.99 each. THE UNIVERSE SERIES. Comets, Asteroids and Meteors By Raman Prinja; Earth By Stuart Clark; The Outer Planets. By Raman Prinja. Heinemann pound;10.99 each. OUR UNIVERSE SERIES. The Milky Way and Other Galaxies; Pluto and the Search for New Planets; Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars By Gregory Vogt. Raintree pound;9.99 each. OXFORD FIRST BOOK OF SPACE. by Andrew Langley. Oxford University Press pound;7.99. WORLD OF KNOWLEDGE SERIES. Space By Julie and Robert Brown. Belitha Press pound;12.99. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PLANET EARTH. By Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. Piatkus Books pound;16.99. SPACE - OUR FINAL FRONTIER. By John Gribbin. BBC pound;19.99. If there is one topic in school science that never fails to reach the parts that others do, it is astronomy. This subject is brimming with awe and wonder, offering the chance to grapple with things that are too big to imagine, too far away to comprehend. This is the one point where science grapples with those existential questions of who we are, where we are and how we might ultimately end. What is more, the visual resources to support the teaching of this topic seem to get better by the day, as telescopes and satellites produce more and more extraordinary images of the universe "out there".

No book does this better than the first of these, The Universe - 365 Days, which, as its name implies, consists of 365 stunning photographs of the highest quality taken from the website Astronomy Picture of the Day. For once, the phrase "awe-inspiring" is not an American overstatement and children of all ages would get something from this book.

The other exceptional book in this collection is Stikky Night Skies. Having trouble recognising even the most well-known constellations of the night sky, such as Orion or Cygnus? Then this book takes you through a set of exercises which require minimal reading and maximum practice, and which will have you eruditely displaying your new-found skills by the end of a week. Once again, it is a book for all ages.

The other books here are more standard fare, but still very good. Robin Kerrod's Our Solar System series consists of a set six A4-size books aimed at key stage 2 and the teaching of the topic "The Earth and Beyond". They are all well-written, informative and excellently illustrated.

The Heinemann Universe series also has KS2 children as its target. These seven books are a little less lavishly illustrated, have less text and are A5-size but, being hardback, are longer lasting. In contrast, the texts in Raintree's Our Universe series are longer and illustrated with excellent photographs, but short on diagrams which would have improved some of the explanations.

The Oxford First Book of Space is an attempt to produce a single book for six to eight-year-olds and it covers most of the major ideas of astronomy in an interesting and beautifully illustrated way. The reading and the concepts are a bit beyond all but the most able child of this age, but all children will get something of interest from this book.

The World of Knowledge Space book is similar but makes less demand on children's reading skills, with shorter sentences and bigger type.

Finally, there are the two odd ones out in this collection - The Life and Death of Planet Earth and Space - Our Final Frontier. The first is an eloquent account of the ultimate fate of the Earth, achieved uniquely for this set of books without a single picture. The latter is the book for teachers or A-level pupils. If you want to know how the universe started, what dark matter is, or some of the cosmic coincidences that exist in our universe, in a book written by one of the country's most accomplished science communicators, then this lavishly illustrated volume is the one for you.

If it doesn't convince you that one of the most amazing stories that science has to tell is one of the greatest accomplishments of our culture, then nothing will.

Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College London

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