Space: The Final Frontier

Milky Way Galaxy, photo courtesy of

In my opinion, there is nothing more wondrous than looking up at the night sky, seeing the vast amount of stars sprinkled upon the blackness, like a shaker of salt spilled on black silk.  The numbers of the cosmos are stunning as well.  Think about this: There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of Earth’s beaches combined.  Scientists’ best estimates show that there are at least 30 sextillion stars in the observable universe, and probably many more.  If you are writing that number out, that’s 30 followed by 21 zeroes!

One of my favorite astronomical activities is to stay up late for the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs yearly in August.  Mark your calendar for August 12th and 13th this year for the Perseid peak, but if you don’t want to stay up late for this, check out some of these great books about the cosmos, which you can do at any time!

Cosmos Close-Up by Giles Sparrow. 9781554078912. 2011. Gr 9-Adult.

This book features stunning, high-resolution images taken from various sources, including the Hubble Space Telescope.  The concept here is to show an astronomical body in its entirety, then selecting a portion of it to “zoom in” on and highlight some important details.  For example, a large photograph of Jupiter is shown; then the adjacent page shows Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in detail.  The pictures are accompanied by facts and statistics.  Clearly, the photos are the draw here, and this book is a perfect one for students to flip through and browse the sections they find interesting.  Cosmos Close-Up is a beautiful book and a great way to build appreciation of the universe.

Space Probes: 50 Years of Exploration from Luna 1 to New Horizons by Phillippe Séguéla. 9781554079445. 2011. Gr 9-Adult.

Space Probes chronicles space exploration starting with Luna 1 (which explored the moon) in 1959 and ends with New Horizons (which will be exploring Pluto) in 2015. The visual aspects of this book, much like Cosmos Close-Up, are exceptional.  Photos and illustrations show different probes and planets in vivid detail, and the blueprint-style diagrams will appeal to any future engineers or technically-minded people.   Commentary on each of the missions is provided, and interspersed throughout the book are features on scientists such as Galileo, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan.  This is another book that is best flipped through and browsed, and while it is a fairly technical book, there is something for everyone here, and overall is a fascinating look at humanity’s history exploring the universe.

Really, Really Big Questions About Space and Time by Mark Brake (ill. Nishant Choksi). 9780753467473. 2012. Gr 4-7.

In many ways this title is the opposite of the previous two I have chosen.  First, Really, Really Big Questions About Space and Time is illustrated in a cartoonish, approachable style.  Secondly, there is no technical, scientific jargon here…the appeal of this book is that it boils down some of the universe’s biggest questions into easy-to-understand answers.  This book is targeted for upper elementary/lower middle school students, but I can see this being a great resource for older readers as well, as it reinforces previous learning, and is helpful in explaining things in a very straightforward way.  Plus, it is just good fun…here are some sample questions posed:

  • Why is the night sky so dark?
  • Who owns space?
  • Is space smelly?
  • What is at the center of the Milky Way?

Anytime you can mix “fun” with “informative”, it’s a good thing!

Further reading:  While the following titles are primarily aimed toward adults, they are two of my favorites, and I believe they have crossover appeal for students that have a more advanced interest in physics and astronomy.

Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End by Phil Plait. 9780670019977. 2008. Gr 11-Adult.

The subtitle for this book is, “These are the ways the world will end.”  This provides the somewhat morbid, but alluring, premise of the book.  It outlines all of the ways that the universe can bring catastrophe to Earth.  From meteor strikes to supernovae to alien attack, this is a fun, science-based look at the possibility of these things happening.  While the title is attention-grabbing and sensational, Plait gives (mostly) reassuring odds for each scenario, which should help readers not lose too much sleep!

Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. 9780393062243. 2007. Gr 11-Adult.

While the title makes it sound similar to Death from the Skies, it is actually a collection of space-themed essays that is very broad-ranging.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and makes regular appearances on PBS and other television channels.  He has a way of making sense of the universe in an easy, witty way that is understandable to all.  A sampling of essays in this collection deal with star formation, the possibility of alien life forms, and as the title suggests, what would happen if you got sucked into a black hole.  This and much more is packed into this fascinating collection.

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