The very first image inside James Trefil’s impressive National Geographic book Space Atlas is the Western Hemisphere of Earth against a black background. The shapes of North and South America are easily recognizable through the clouds that hover in the atmosphere above the planet. It is the first of many images that offer a great perspective of the reader’s, and frankly every human being’s, significance in the grand scheme of things.
Space Atlas is broken into three sections: “The Solar System,” “The Galaxy,” and “The Universe.” Naturally, “The Solar System” offers the greatest amount of information since it has received the most amount of study by mankind. Not only does this section cover the planets, but also their most notable moons; the asteroid belt between the terrestrial and Jovian planets; Pluto, a planet until the 2006 International Astronomical Union reclassified it as a plutoid; a few comets; and the Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud, at the fringes of our solar system.
After making my way only through this portion of the book, I don’t need to look at any more to highly recommend Space Atlas. The star charts, the stunning photography, and the brilliant rendering by artists and computers were a joy to look at and will be a main reason to revisit the book. In addition, Trefil, the Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University, engages the reader with informative text that is accessible to the lay person. He also highlights scientists whose discoveries helped inform this book and our knowledge of the universe, such as Copernicus, who “produced the first serious model of the solar system in which the sun was at the center and Earth moved in orbit,” and Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the signals of pulsars.
“The Milky Way” starts with a look at the Sun, pauses on Earth for a brief examination of the origins of life and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and moves on to items, such as supernovae, neutron stars, black holes, and dark matter. “The Universe” owes a debt to the work of Edwin Hubble and offers brief chapters on light fare, like the beginning and end of the universe. The book concludes with an epilogue entitled “Mysteries,” which covers the subjects of string theory and the multiverse. Don’t worry if they still seem like mysteries after reading about them.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who appears in an iconic photo taken on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, offers such a great explanation about the thrilling nature of Space Atlas in the book’s foreword that it deserves repeating here: “[It] is so exciting because it refines our sense of the frontiers of space explorations, both manned and unmanned, and translating all of that new data into graceful text, remarkable imagery, and elegant maps.”
For all those who ever dreamed of traveling to the stars, Space Atlas will surely keep those fantasies alive.