Arts book review

A magnificent visual guide to the universe

Universe is a feast for the eyes and a treat for the mind of any sky lover


Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide

Edited by Martin Reese


September 2012

The new edition of Universe is nothing short of what it promises. Edited by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and published for the Smithsonian Institution by DK, the book is a comprehensive, up-to-date, and visually mesmerizing guide to the cosmos and what we know of it. Its 500 pages are divided into three sections: astronomy in general, the cosmos, and the night sky.

The first section is mostly about the theory of physics, cosmology, and astronomy. It addresses basic questions about matter, energy, and space-time, presents current theories about the beginning and eventual end of the universe, and offers a primer on astronomy, to help the reader make sense of the changing appearances of the heavens. The graphics are breathtaking. A two-page plate titled “The scale of the universe” conveys a visceral sense of the immensity of the cosmos through a sequence of nested zoom-ins from the earth to superclusters. A four-page plate titled “The Big Bang” shows the birth of the universe from the Plank era to the appearance of matter.

The second section is mostly known facts about the universe at different scales. Our Solar System comes first, starting with the Sun itself and working outwards towards the Oort Cloud. As always, images are just eye-popping: close-ups of spots on the Sun, the rings of Saturn, and the scars on Europa... you name it. Then comes our galaxy, in all its splendor, with jaw-dropping photos of nebulas and star clusters, and after that a section on what lies beyond the Milky Way: nearby galaxies, galaxy clusters and finally superclusters. There is not a single page without magnificent photos and a pile of scientific facts. It is hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to, it would be the all-sky survey showing the distribution of galaxies as seen from Earth.

The third section is about the night sky: the constellations, their history, and skycharts a-plenty, for different latitudes and all seasons. The charts are carefully explained, rich in practical details for using them in backyard observation of the heavens with binoculars, a small telescope, or the naked eye.

This is the book I wish I had while growing up in the countryside of Panama, an equatorial country where most of both celestial hemispheres are visible. It would not only have replaced about a dozen other books I had to keep handy, but it would have given me information I would never had dreamed of having. Human understanding of the universe is expanding almost as fast as the thing itself. There is a revolution taking place in cosmology. The night sky is alive. No matter if you are a layman or an advanced amateur astronomer, you will enjoy this book. As a person who has loved books and the night sky since I can remember, I wholeheartedly recommended Universe. It is a real treat for the curious mind and a feast for the eyes.