National Geographic is simply the admirable gold standard for a certain type of coffee-table volume about the natural and manmade worlds and their many intriguing points of intersection. Solid, substantial, humanistic and civilized, albeit seldom pioneering. Vividly if sometimes a bit conservatively illustrated, with gorgeous photos and savvy graphics. Informative text in a transparent style, lending itself to easy ingestion by bright youths or curious adults seeking to enlarge their horizons. Reading a NatGeo book always makes one feel virtuous, humble and, in most cases, proud to be a human.
Sizing Up the Universe is no exception to the Geographic honor roll. If you don’t emerge from this book having gratefully learned something amazing about our astonishing cosmos, you are certifiably blind or brain-dead. Its authors—Gott is an astrophysicist, while Vanderbei has worked for NASA and provides many of the photos herein—have plainly thought long and hard about how to best educate the layperson in the scale of the universe, the relative sizes and distances amongst the various planets, stars and galaxies that we can see—and can’t see—in the night sky. The easy-to-follow ascending progression of concepts they array before us is reminiscent of the famous Ray and Charles Eames film, Powers of Ten, which steps the viewer through larger and larger frames of cosmic creation.
Starting with a discussion of how to scientifically compare and measure celestial objects as seen from an Earthling’s perspective, the authors next review how our understanding of the universe’s structure has developed since the days of the Classical Greeks. Then, taking advantage of the many eye-popping images provided by the Hubble Telescope and other instruments (reproduced here in brilliant tones), they illustrate the immensity of the spacetime continuum in an easy-to-comprehend stepwise fashion. (Sometimes, I fear, a tad too rudimentarily: I’m not sure even the average ten-year-old reader needs this sidebar info: “The suns we see at night are actually other stars—they appear faint only because they are so far away.”)
The literal centerpiece of the volume is a giant gatefold schematic of cosmic distances, modeled on—of all things—the famous New Yorker cover of a Manhattanite’s perspective of the planet. If it would not be disrespectful to such a charming, sincere and informative book, I would suggest detaching the chart and hanging it where it could be viewed daily, especially when one’s problems begin to look overly large.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.