How the Universe Works by Chartwell Books
Though not without some issues, How the Universe Works is generally an excellent reference work for a decently wide range of readers young to old (I’d guess it’s targeted at older teens and adults). Elementary school children will feel a little overwhelmed by some of the text, but the wonderful graphics: cut-away diagrams, timelines, etc., will provide them some clear and manageable info. Older young readers will follow the textual information better and the illustrations will serve as enhancement and clarification, while older readers who know some of this information will find the illustrations allow for better visualization while the text will serve as concise reminders.
Chapter One deals with cosmography, opening with a good visual “zoom out” to give a sense of our place in the universe, moving from the solar system to nearby stars, the local groups, etc.
We then get a timeline of the universe’s creation and what we think happened in those first few moments (creation of matter, the basic forces, inflation, and so on) followed by some theories on how the universe will end.
And then we bore in more detail in the Milky Way and other galaxies, and then different types of stars and how they form and how they’ll end.
This first section is tough in that the authors are trying to cover an awful lot in a short period of time: particle physics, stellar physics, the basic forces, and I think they don’t quite nail it, with things feeling a bit random/choppy and I would imagine more than a little hard to follow if one doesn’t already know some of the above. If I were reading this with younger kids, I’d probably skip this part and come back to it. Even the stellar physics, which is less wide-ranging, has a lot going on with its diagrams and charts and arrows and it might all be overwhelming.
Things become more clear and concrete in Chapter Two, dealing with the solar system, a more narrow topic that allows How the Universe Works to really find its pace and place.
The cutaway diagrams of each planet are fantastic, as are illustrations of orbits, magnetic fields, and ring systems. Here the visuals don’t overwhelm but clarify, and in many ways act as better guides to the information than the text, as when one considers, for instance, the layered elements of each planet, such as the atmosphere or the inner core.
Each planet also gets a table of “essential data” which is just what one would expect — facts such as orbital speed, number of moons, orbital year, average temperatures, etc.
Other parts of the solar system covered are dwarf planet Pluto, asteroids, comets, Kuiper Belt Objects, the Oort Cloud. This section closes with a look at other solar systems, with an excellent timeline of extra-solar planet-finding, along with some descriptions of interesting examples, including a very up-to-date discussion of the Trappist planets.
The third section looks in detail at the Earth and moon, with again some wonderful cut-aways of the planet rocky parts from the surface to the core, the layers of the atmosphere above the surface, and the Earth’s magnetic field.
There’s an excellent explanation — textual and visual — of how the moon affects our tides in the segment on the moon.
After some more information on the moon, we return to the Earth for a timeline of the geological and biological evolution of the planet, including mineral creation, the rock cycle, the origin of life (including a discussion of panspermia), the Cambrian Explosion and a nicely clear phylogenetic tree diagram showing the interrelationships of all life.
Much to my pleasant surprise, based on the cover and title, we then move into sections dealing with humanity’s exploration of the cosmos, beginning with the history of astronomy, including a fascinating reconstruction of Su Song’s astronomical clock from Ancient China. More contemporary technologies discussed include the Large Hadron Collider and the Ver Large Array.
Chapter Five details the space race through the Apollo missions. Chapter Six covers explorations beyond the moon, which begins with several pages of, again, nicely clear explanations of rocketry that include types of engines, launch pads, launch windows, and more.
Then it’s on to the space shuttle and space station, then space-based observatories such as Chandra and Hubble.
Moving from general to specific, Chapter Seven goes into detail on planetary missions/probes, spending a lot of time on the various Mars missions and the sundry orbiters and rovers, then goes on to look at other planetary missions such as Galileo, Cassini, and again showing up pleasingly up to date they are, the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The visuals range from trajectory paths of arrival to explanations of the probe’s parts, to nicely informative explanations of landing methods, such as the crane release of the Mars rover.
Finally, the last section is sort of a hodge-podge of space technology, ranging from GPS satellites to space tourism, to the perils and possible solutions of space junk/debris.
Every now and then a visual in How the Universe Works is perhaps over-complicating rather than clarifying; there can at times be a bit of a random feel to the organization, and as noted earlier, some of the information is certainly overwhelming for younger readers. But those are minor quibbles in a book that overall does a nice job of meshing text and visuals so that each enhances the other to clearly convey information for each of comprehension and retention.