The Astronomical League designates one Saturday closest to the first-quarter moon every spring and fall as National Astronomy Day -a biannual event that encourages the promotion of all things relating to the heavens. Throughout the country, planetariums and museums plan special events, and amateur astronomers set up their telescopes in their front yards to bring the public a little closer to the cosmos.
The next Astronomy Day is Saturday, October 4th, and this column serves as the Manatee Public Library's way of bringing a bit of astronomical information to the public!
Take a tour of the entire universe with Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke's "Your Ticket to the Universe: a Guide to Exploring the Cosmos." With the first steps of your journey starting right here on terra firma, you'll soon find yourself at the edge of the visible universe in this virtual travelogue that highlights some of the most amazing and photogenic structures in the cosmos. In a similar vein, but a much shorter trip targeted to "tweens" ages 7-12, Lewis Dartnell's "My Tourist Guide to the Solar System" takes your child on an imaginary "interplanetary cruise ship" all the way out to Pluto, the former planet that was famously "demoted" to dwarf planet status a few years ago.
And speaking of Pluto, what exactly happened there, anyway? Caltech astronomer Michael Brown (who was actively involved in the process), explains all of the reasons that we now officially recognize one less planet in our Solar System in his book, "How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming." Whether or not you agree with the decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet, Brown provides a very readable (even to non-astronomers!) account of the events. On a related note, now is the perfect time to read Brown's book as we are less than a year away from dramatically expanding what we know about Pluto: after a ten year, three billion mile journey, NASA's New Horizons space probe is on course for its close encounter with the distant world next July.
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Dava Sobel, author of the best-selling book "Galileo's Daughter," takes on another important historical figure from the world of astronomy in "A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos." In the mid-1500s, Nicolaus Copernicus transformed our knowledge of the heavens when he provided data indicating that the Earth was not the center of the universe. His "heliocentric" (sun-centered) theory took a while to be accepted and though we know now that our sun lies at the center of just the Solar System (and not the entire universe), his contributions to science are unparalleled. Sobel brings the scientist to life, immersing the reader in a fascinating world separated from us by five centuries of advancements.
Some science fiction writers prefer to weave fantastic tales while keeping the science plausible. This is why Andy Weir's "The Martian" has made it into this article about astronomy. Set in the not-too-distant future, this terrific novel opens with a small crew of astronaut-explorers evacuating from the red planet due to a raging sandstorm. One of the crew members is killed in the storm (or so they think), and recovery of his body is out of the question-they have no choice but to leave him behind. Weir's gripping drama of a man who was (understandably) abandoned literally millions of miles from home, and his agonizing struggle to survive until he can (maybe) be rescued, is a page-turner.