Mind-boggling matter

7th November 1997 at 00:00
UFOS AND ALIENS. By Colin Wilson. Pounds 7.99. SPACE EXPLORATION. By Carole Stott. Pounds 9.99. BIG BANG. By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest. Pounds 9.99. All Dorling Kindersley

Dennis Ashton reviews three very different 'space' books

A substantial proportion of people in the United States, a recent survey revealed, believe that beings from other worlds regularly visit Earth. In Britain, too, a generation of children seems to accept this belief.

In UFOs and Aliens Colin Wilson traces the phenomenon for the impressionable eight to 12 age group. Although mysterious sightings have been recorded as far back as 1,500bc, contemporary ufology began in 1947 when the American Kenneth Arnold spotted a formation of "flying saucers". This sparked a stream of supposed UFO sightings that has continued to the present day.

In 1953 George Adamski wrote about his meeting with a being from Venus. Despite this being an obvious hoax, reports of close encounters have multiplied and now the fashion is to be abducted by alien visitors with one species - the grey - featuring in many accounts.

While most sightings can be accounted for as natural phenomena, human artefact or hoax, enough remain unexplained to keep alive the notions of alien visits and government cover-ups. Colin Wilson's UFO review has, of course, one missing section - the undeniable proof. The message of this book should be that until proof exists, such visits are merely a possibility. We should keep open minds - but not too open.

In Space Exploration, Carole Stott encounters real space craft and space travellers for a similar age group. The author is an active educator, often visiting schools to explain the challenges of living in space. This experience shows in the clarity with which she describes the hardware, living environment and science of the final frontier.

Young people are fascinated by the way in which astronauts cope with everyday bodily functions - eating, hygiene and above all, going to the toilet. All of this is illustrated and much more. Not only do we gain an insight into astronaut training but we also see details such as Helen Sharman's astronaut passport.

Carole Stott reviews investigations carried out in space, from monitoring our own planet to the exploration of other worlds in our solar system. Perhaps the postscript to Space Exploration could be borrowed from Colin Wilson: "from an extraterrestrial point of view, we are the aliens".

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest team up with illustrator Luciano Corbella to tackle the ultimate question - how did it all begin? Adults and children alike will find Big Bang a fascinating and beautifully rendered account of the evolution of our Universe.

Everyone should take care to read the prelude, Countdown, which counters misconceptions of existence before the cosmos was born. The story then begins at time zero with the creation of the universe, the onset of the inflationary "Big Bang" and the formation of a particle soup, forerunner to the matter which shaped the universe we see today. It is in these early sections that the integration of graphics and text is so effective: the presentations reward close scrutiny and build up a powerful vision of the emerging universe.

The impetus is maintained as we see how galaxies are formed and we learn that the universe as a whole continues to expand, taking the galaxies with it. This expansion has enabled scientists to estimate the size and age of the Universe and speculate on its ultimate future. At the heartof the book a large fold-out section vividly summarisesthe entire account from BigBang to the end of the Universe.

These three very different books all have attributes important in writing for children. Presented in the immaculate Dorling Kindersley style, they bear the hallmark of authors who enjoy their field of expertise and are able to communicate their knowledge and enthusiasm to the young.

Dennis Ashton is director of the Stardome Mobile Planetarium, Sheffield

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