People sometimes ask me how I come up with the topics for the column each week. Most of my ideas spring from current events -- shuttle launches, missions now in orbit or on their way to distant places, and the seemingly endless parade of new discoveries from the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments in space.
Other topics come from questions asked by schoolchildren, and sometimes I come across a fascinating bit of information or a new way of looking at something that I just have to share.
And there are times when I seek input. "Hey, Kris," I asked the other day. "What do you want to read about this week?"
"Baseball" was her immediate answer. Kristen is 11 and baseball is her life right now. I didn't see how I could tie baseball into astronomy. Maybe the reaction of a thrown ball on another planet or in the shuttle? Hmmm -- no, but maybe in the future when I have time to do the math and pull the physics together.
"Reading" was her second suggestion. Ah, one of her other favorite pastimes -- and that I can do. After all, now that school is out for the summer it's a perfect time for kids like Kristen to do some reading just for pleasure.
Recommendations: One of my favorite books for readers of Kristen's age is called "How Come?" Written by Kathy Wollard and cleverly illustrated by Debra Solomon, the book gives answers to questions that all kids have about science. Parents out there know the ones I mean: "What is a black hole?" and "Why are the dinosaurs extinct?" and "Why are bubbles round?"
This is one of my primary source books when preparing for a new onslaught of eager third- and fourth-graders each year, and the writing is engaging enough to appeal to readers on higher levels.
"Why is space black" is a good question to use as an example. Wollard's answer takes readers into the effect of our atmosphere on light, Olbers' Paradox, and Edgar Allen Poe.
During the day, Wollard writes, the air molecules in our atmosphere reflect sunlight. That's why the sky is dark in the "daytime" on the moon, because it has no atmosphere.
Astronomers then wondered that if space is infinite and is filled with an infinite number of stars, then why isn't our night sky filled with a blaze of stars? The 19th century astronomer Wilhelm Olbers popularized the question and it became known as Olbers' Paradox.
Various theories have been proposed to answer the question, and the best so far looks to the very beginnings of the universe for the answer: That the stars don't actually go on forever. Wollard notes that in Poe's "Eureka: A Prose Poem," he writes "in the blackness of space, we see the nothingness that existed before the birth of the stars." This may be close to the truth, and it's neatly put, too.
Red planet: This will be the summer of Mars, and an excellent way to keep in tune with the red planet is the book "An Earthling's Guide to Mars." Written by Carolyn Sumners of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the book is lavishly illustrated with NASA photos and drawings by space artist Pat Rawlings.
NASA Director Daniel Goldin has mentioned recently that he expects humans to travel to Mars in the next 20 years. He may be optimistic, but the next logical place to satisfy the human need for discovery is indeed our neighboring planet. "An Earthling's Guide to Mars" opens with a look at an imaginary trip to Mars and ends optimistically with people actually arriving there on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 20, 2019). In between are pages of good science, factual and entertaining information and answers to the questions that many kids have about Mars.
For kids (and skywatchers of all ages) who want to learn the constellations, I'd suggest two classic books and one new volume. They're "Find the Constellations" by H.A. Rey (better known as the author of the Curious George books), "365 Starry Nights" by Chet Raymo and a new book by John Mosley, a colleague at the Griffin Observatory in Los Angeles: "Stargazing for Beginners."
Adult readings: I'm not letting the adults off the hook with this homework assignment. There is a wealth of great books on astronomy for the general public, and I'll list only three as a representative sample.
One of my favorite books is "Blind Watchers of the Sky: The People and Ideas that Shaped Our View of the Universe" by Rocky Kolb, head of the Fermilab Theoretical Astrophysics Group. Don't let his lofty position scare you, however -- the book is entertaining, funny, and educational. You'll have to check your library for this one, as it's out of print.
If you want a quick read and laughs, then by all means pick up Eric Schulman's "A Briefer History of Time: From the Big Bang to the Big Mac." This sideways look at the important events in our universe's history will have you in stitches and wishing the book was longer.
Other authors: I'd happily suggest that any book by David Levy is well worth reading, but if I had to pick one I'd suggest a recent work, "The Ultimate Universe: The Most Up-to-Date Guide to the Cosmos." This Levy is the same Levy as in the latter part of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that broke apart and collided with Jupiter in 1994, and he writes monthly in the Parade Magazine supplement to The Vindicator.
What am I reading this summer? I have two books just waiting for those rare quiet moments. The first is "An Intimate Look at the Night Sky" by Chet Raymo, a star guide that I'm sure will include his poetic musings about life and the universe. I became hooked on Raymo not because of his "365 Starry Nights," but from "The Soul of the Night," another book I'd recommend for adult readers.
Also waiting is "Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos" by Alan Hirschfeld. I really don't know what to expect with this book, but it promises to be as engaging and readable as Dava Sobel's "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time."
If you like historical detective novels, then both of these should be just right.