My Tourist Guide to the Solar System … and Beyond :by Dr Lewis Dartnell

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 Book Review by David Lane

This book is an introduction to the solar system for children. Like all Dorling Kindersley books it is of high quality and good value. It is written by someone who obviously knows their stuff (Dr Dartnell is an astrobiology research scientist) and contains some interesting little nuggets even for people who know something about the subject. The NASA photographs and Ron Miller’s artist’s impressions range from good to high quality. It is carefully designed and well made. At £8.99 it is excellent value for money. Although I am not knowledgeable about other books in this field, I doubt whether there is a better introduction to the subject for children.As our prehistoric monuments show, astronomy was of sufficient interest to our ancestors for them to expend considerable time, thought and effort in gathering data and building megalithic structures to reflect the movements of the sun, moon and stars. After all, understanding the passing of the seasons was crucial to their survival. Indeed, astronomers claim that theirs is the oldest branch of science.

And today, without telescopes, children can observe the wonders of the heavens and the changing seasons with their own eyes. It is therefore appropriate to teach children about astronomy.

While the subject matter can be observed by children in their daily lives, there are problems in teaching about it. How does one convey the sheer scale of the universe, and the billions of years during which it has been formed? Astronomy has made massive leaps forward in recent years, with the improvement of technology such as radio telescopes, infra-red telescopes, the space-based Hubble telescope and the use of computers to analyse data.

It is interesting to see how much we have learned in recent years. The realistic descriptions we can give of marble-sized raindrops on Titan and diamond storms on Neptune would have been amongst the most outrageous Sci-Fi worlds described in the 1970s. Now we know these things are a reality.

The subject is therefore enormously complex, and putting these mind-blowing data into a modest volume which can be understood and assimilated by children will have been a daunting task. DK chose to approach it by limiting the fields which they dealt with, by sticking basically to the solar system and by introducing the human scale by suggesting to readers that they are space travellers on a treasure hunt to visit different types of heavenly body - planets, asteroids and so on. While this is an ingenious device, if the book is meant to teaching scientific fact, it has to be acknowledged that space travellers cannot at present travel further than the moon, and there is no clear boundary in the text between the facts and the fiction.

Limiting the book’s scope meant that a lot had to be omitted. Despite this being a solar system guide it took in black holes, nebulae and dying red giant stars. But within the solar system Dr Dartnell could have included the Oort cloud (the birthplace of comets) and the heliosphere (with a reference to Voyager perhaps), and as a joke he could have included a treasure hunt for Planet X.

Maybe there should have been a separate book about the universe. There would be plenty of other material - seeing stars born, captured galaxies, globular clusters, double stars, exoplanets and so on.

DK have set very high standards in their books and it may seem overly harsh to carp, but there seemed to me to be two problems with this book.

The first is that it is not clear what age group is the target readership. In places the book is quite sophisticated, reflecting the complexity of the subject matter, but in others it seems to be aimed at the very young. Similarly, if this is a taster to get young children interested, there is probably too much detail on some small points, but not enough information for older or interested children. It must have been hard to get this balance right, but I have the feeling that the book sits uneasily with a cheek on each of two stools.

The second is that the subject matter is fascinating and does not need to be talked up. DK design work is first-rate; in this case I felt that the book tried too hard to impress and ’shouted’ at me. I also found that the attempts to be cool by sticking in the occasional word like ‘whatever’ detracted from its impact, and I doubt whether their insertion will have made the subject more acceptable to children. With subjects like this I think it is better to use straightforward language. It needs to reflect a scientific approach, rather than treating the subject matter as the latest fashion fad.

These are perhaps quibbles about fine-tuning, but I hope that DK find them useful if they read this review. This is a good quality product but probably not one for children to read by themselves. Shared reading could lead to discussion about the solar system, and teachers or parents would ideally need to be knowledgeable enough to answer factual questions about the things the book could not include. This could lead on to questions such as “Why are we here?”, “Where did the universe come from?” “What was before the universe”, “Are there aliens?” and such like.

Instilling a sense of wonder and stirring up the questions and thinking about our place within the universe is more important than having factual answers. This book gives some of the facts, but more importantly it could well encourage a life-long interest in the subject. After all, despite (or perhaps because of) all the technological advances, astronomy is a science where amateurs can still make discoveries and contribute to scientific knowledge.

Dartnell, Lewis (2012) My Tourist Guide to the Solar System … and Beyond

Dorling Kindersley

ISBN 978 1 4053 9142 9

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