Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets, and More is part of a large series of non-fiction books from the Chicago Review Press. Each of the books contains lots of photographs and 21 activities to help kids learn more about the topic covered by the book.
In this particular book, the activities are especially valuable, because this is a tough subject. The author takes on relativity, parallaxes, the electromagnetic spectrum and more, but somehow manages to make these topics fairly understandable even to those with older brains. [On a personal note, I had terrible trouble understanding parallax until I took some golf lessons. It turns out physics is quite relevant to golf.] Frankly I was amazed at the topics the author tackled, from inertia to dark energy, without getting bogged down in abstruse explanations or scaring anyone off with mathematical formulae.
The author surveys the history of exploring the universe in a chronological fashion, beginning with a timeline that she then expands upon in subsequent chapters. I love how she presented the story of Johannes Kepler, the great 16th Century astronomer who posited the three laws of planetary motion; she credits his mother with inspiring his great interest in the heavens. She is also careful to mention the wives of astronomers who did a lot of work to aid their famous husbands.
And in fact, an unexpected bonus of this book is that the author gives great coverage to the many pioneering but usually ignored women in cosmology, including Caroline Herschel, Annie Jump Cannon, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, and Margaret Geller.
[This is not to say this is a “feminist” book by any means; however, in the sciences, it is so normal to see women ignored or glossed over, that this author’s more balanced treatment shone like a thousand suns for me.]
The images in the book are terrific, thanks in part to the fabulous space telescopes Hubble and Chandra.
Some of the activities are a bit complicated, like the construction of a reflecting telescope, and some a bit contrived – why go to all the trouble to make a contraption that shows space-time warping when you can just jump on a bed? [Get an adult (a massive object) and a couple of kids (little planets) to rest on a bed and you will see how the indent made by the adult pulls the kids into the depression caused by the adult. This shows the effect we commonly think of as gravity.] But budding scientists attracted to this area of study may not mind all the effort, and the rewards are certainly great.
Evaluation: This book, like the others in this series, is terrific. Besides the entertaining narration of the main story, there are plenty of photos and graphics and sidebars and boxes that mix it up and keep it interesting. In the back there is a glossary and an annotated list of links to additional resources on the Web.
Published by the Chicago Review Press, 2013.