Three Books on Space Exploration | Science Reviews

Emily Levesque discusses her path to astronomy. Jo Marchant considers our stars and skies. Sarah Stewart Johnson explores the history of Mars.

The Last StargazersLevesque, Emily. The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers. Sourcebooks. Aug. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781492681076. $25.99. SCI
Introduced to the wonders of the night sky as a toddler using a telescope in her backyard, Levesque (astronomy, Univ. of Washington), decides to become an astronomer. Here she combines memoir with the science of astronomy, written for general readers. She shares her own experiences, as well as those of dozens of friends and colleagues who study the universe. She relates the changes in large telescope observation techniques that led to the ability to control telescopes in remote locations from an office laptop, along with the different kinds of equipment that record myriad data from the universe. Levesque also details the increased participation of women in the field, discoveries confirming hypotheses, and how carefully planned observing time at telescopes can be derailed by high winds or an errant cloud. She also touches on the controversy over a planned new telescope in Hawaii. VERDICT Levesque does a wonderful job explaining the science behind astronomy as she conveys the awe and beauty of the universe, the dedication of the people who study it, and the excitement of discovery in this fascinating account that will appeal to fans of narrative nonfiction and fellow stargazers.—Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove, IL

Human CosmosMarchant, Jo. The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars. Dutton. Sept. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9780593183014. $28. SCI
With this latest work, science journalist Marchant (Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body) sets off to summarize the human history of the stars by focusing on the people involved—astronauts, mathematicians, sailors, writers—rather than the discoveries themselves. Starting with dot patterns that resemble sky maps in the caves of Lascaux, she continues to examine the contributions that various groups, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks, have made to our understanding of the night sky. The narrative also touches on the contributions of astronomers such as Galileo, Issac Newton, and Christiaan Huygens, along with how figures including artist Wassily Kandinsky and writer and philosopher Thomas Paine portrayed the sky. The scope of the book ranges from stone pillars in southern Turkey to meteorites in Antarctica. Marchant organizes this long-ranging history of astronomy into chapters that consider human development of concepts such as time, fate, and power. Our present moment is also considered, where light pollution interrupts biological rhythms and where we often study the sky with computers instead of our eyes. VERDICT Though tied together by astronomy, this thematic, engaging overview of our stars and skies has something for all readers of geography, exploration, religion, philosophy, and politics.—Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib.

Siren of MarsStewart Johnson, Sarah. The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World. Crown. Jul. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781101904817. $28.99. SCI
For centuries, Mars has been a source of fascination for many astronomers and other scientists. Johnson (planetary science, Georgetown Univ.) paints a colorful history of the Red Planet and the people who have attempted to uncover its secrets. She recounts many of the scientists who have observed Mars ever since the Mesopotamians distinguished Mars as a planet and not a star. Ground-breaking astronomers such as Galileo, Christiaan Huygens, Giovanni Schiaparelli, and Percival Lowell hoped to learn more about the geography and climate of the planet. Yet, like astronomer Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame, the author is lured by the notion that life exists beyond Earth. Through her descriptions of NASA Mars missions such as Mariner, Viking, and Pathfinder, the author reveals her passion to join the quest for knowing Mars. Johnson also reflects about what exploring Mars means for human existence, drawing readers into learning about each new revelation brought forth by scientists or planetary rovers. VERDICT Part natural history of Mars and part personal story, this narrative is accessible and eloquent, making it essential for armchair explorers and Mars enthusiasts. Johnson's journey is also inspiring to women interested in S.T.E.M. careers.—Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL

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