Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide

Martin Rees, General Editor. Third Edition. DK/Smithsonian, 2020. 528 pages. $50.00.

Universe cover image

By Jay M. Pasachoff

This truly spectacular book is 500 large-size glossy pages of wonder. The 2020 edition starts with “What is the Scale of the Universe,” discusses “The View from Earth,” and continues with a “Guide to the Universe,” from the solar system out through the stars and galaxies. It even, unusually for such a large-format book, after constellation-by-constellation gorgeous maps and imaging, tacks on a monthly sky guide.

Lightly guided (as he writes me) by its general editor, Lord Rees of Ludlow, the current Astronomer Royal, this book ticks all the boxes: beautiful, scientific, accurate, interesting, and moderately priced. Be sure to get the, 2020 edition, with a Mars disk on the cover; it is substantially modernized since the first, 2005 edition. In too-small type in the acknowledgments at the end, after the substantial glossary and index, I spot that renowned astronomy writer Ian Ridpath is credited “for planning the updates and providing most of the new text.” So that high-quality participation gives me even more confidence in the book.

Near the book’s end, each constellation gets its own page or half-page, with wide-field and “close-up” imaging (all carefully credited at the end), plus boxes of information, such as a biographical note about Henrietta Leavitt on the page for Cepheus.  

The book is very readable, while at the same time has large-scale spectacular photos—well captioned—on every page. As a textbook author myself, familiar with how much work it takes to get hundreds of illustrations chosen, permissioned, and spaced, I can’t even imagine the size of the army of authors, artists, illustrators, and others who worked on the book.

Not that I will do it, but I can conceive of nothing more interesting or more fun than sitting down for an hour a day, enjoying and reading through this wonderful book.

Astronomer and author Jay M. Pasachoff (ΦBK, Williams College) is the director of the Hopkins Observatory and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. He is a visitor in the Carnegie Observatories. Williams College is home to the Gamma of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.