from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 2

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe
by Jay M. Pasachoff.  Sixth edition, 2002.  816 pages + appendices.
ISBN: 0-03-033488-8.  Published by Brooks/Cole, 511 Forest Lodge Road,
Pacific Grove, California 93950.

Here Is a Worthy New Version
of an Excellent Astronomy Text

Bing F. Quock

During the past few years, astronomers have discovered new solar systems, new bodies within our own solar system (including new moons of Jupiter and significant new objects that reside, with Pluto, in the Kuiper Belt) and definitive evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. Astronomy is evolving rapidly -- and for this reason, the writers of astronomy textbooks must revise their products fairly frequently.

The fifth edition of Jay Pasachoff's Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe was issued in 1998. In my review of that edition, I described it as an excellent and timely introduction to the cosmos, and I praised Pasachoff's unadorned, conversational style of writing and his tactic of using bits of pop culture to make his book engaging. (See "A Good, Friendly Textbook by a Lucid Writer" in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 8, No. 5.)

In the sixth edition, copyrighted in 2002, Pasachoff has revised Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe significantly. He has not changed the book's essential content or style, but he has added new material about extrasolar planets, about stellar evolution, and about cosmology, among other topics.

Again, as in the fifth edition, each chapter has a short section in which Pasachoff undertakes to correct popular misconceptions. And again, Pasachoff has loaded his book with pictures that range from astounding celestial images to photographs which show such whimsical subjects as Carhenge (a monument, in Nebraska that resembles Stonehenge but is made from automobiles), a can of Campbell's Primordial Soup, and the character Yoda from George Lucas's film Star Wars. (Yoda appears at the start of Pasachoff's chapter about the possibility that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.) In certain cases, however, Pasachoff hasn't handled his illustrations as well as he might have. On page 3, the caption under an image of a total solar eclipse says that Jupiter appears in the image as a "white dot," but the image is so small that no such dot is visible. Likewise, the pictures of galaxy clusters in deep space are too small, and they cry out for full-page treatment. And the illustration on page 114 does not show the relative sizes of the planets, its caption notwithstanding.

Pasachoff is not afraid to venture into difficult territory -- astrophysics, relativity and string theory, as examples -- but he remembers for whom he is writing, and he has a knack for explaining things in ways that make formidable topics comprehensible to students. His enthusiasm for astronomy comes through clearly, as does his devotion to helping students develop an appreciation for scientific methods of inquiry. The sixth edition of Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe is a worthy successor to the fifth, and I recommend it.

Bing F. Quock serves as acting chairman of the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. He specializes in presenting astronomy to the public, and he has principal responsibility for planning and directing the Planetarium's public programs. His scientific interests include comparative planetology.


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