Reaching for the stars

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Our Universe: A Guide to What's Out There. By Russell Stannard Kingfisher Pounds 9.99. 1 85697 317 4. The Starry Sky. By Patrick Moore, Riverswift Pounds 12.99. 1 898304 03 3. In Russell Stannard's The Time and Space of Uncle Albert (1989), Gedanken travelled in a spacecraft which came wrapped in a thought bubble. Now Stannard extends that cocoon of imagination for youngsters to take their own journey through the universe.

It is no mere sight-seeing trip: young readers are guided through ideas and theories as they explore the cosmos.

Russell Stannard is professor of physics at the Open University and a talented scientific storyteller. He knows that children enjoy big science and that they can deal with challenging ideas provided that the presentation is right. In Our Universe the issues are based on those searching questions asked by youngsters: What is a black hole? Why do stars explode? How did everything begin?

The book begins with an explanation of gravity, the force which shapes our universe and will be seen to be involved in all the key events in space and time. The space journey explores the Solar System and navigates a path through the stars before plunging into the realms of galaxies. Different stages of the tour are linked by diversions into the nature of celestial objects and events.

Our Universe is a treasure house of description, fact, and analogies. Readers of 10-plus years will first discover an overall picture of the grand design of our universe: subsequent readings will fit information into place and make sense of theories. We learn why solar energy is true central heating, that there are 20 stars in our galaxy for every person on earth and that a teaspoonful of neutron star weighs as much as 10,000 melted down aircraft carriers.

In a book which conjures up many pictures in the imagination, the cartoons and colour graphics blend comfortably to reinforce ideas and observations. End-of-chapter quizzes reflect the ethos of the book, gently probing understanding and encouraging constructive thought. It is surprising among this precision to find a confusing reference to "fusing atoms" instead of "rearranging atoms" in chapter 3 and a spelling error in the title of chapter 4, but these are minor blemishes in an impressive book.

Pictures decorate the pages of Our Universe but are the main feature of The Starry Sky, Patrick Moore's latest children's book, aimed at eight years and above. Paul Doherty's pictures have photographic clarity enhanced by subtleties of shading and texture beyond the capabilities of the camera: his most memorable images often show other worlds from a perspective as yet unseen by space probes. His observational experience is also used to effect, notably in a sequence of pictures which record the passage of a meteor through the summer sky.

In spite of its title, The Starry Sky deals mainly with near space. It explores effects generated by motions of earth, moon and sun then looks at the planets and minor bodies of the solar system. When he does reach the stars, Patrick Moore first indicates what can be seen from Earth before summarising the lives of stars and looking out to the galaxies. The information is well-sequenced and entertaining.

As one aim of the book is to encourage youngsters to look at objects in the night sky, it is rather disappointing to find no reference to suitable observing guides.

The Starry Sky provides youngsters with a factual, visually memorable introduction to space. For slightly older children, Our Universe tells a story which will engage their curiosity and challenge their thoughts and emotions as it constructs a framework of knowledge and understanding.

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