Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Best Astronomy Books: 15 Must Reads that Will Enhance Your Understanding
The Best Astronomy Books Go Hand In Hand With Astronomical Observation
The night sky above abounds in visual stimuli. There is an infinite number of things that can astound our eyes.
But that beauty and wonder isn't just in the things we can see. The universe is full of the unseen. Over time, our scientific reach has worked to grasp and understand what we can't see.
To truly appreciate the things that we don't see, as well as those things we can, at times we are best served by turning to the written word. Though few of us can truly consume the scientific papers and journals in which the leading edge of scientific thinking and understanding of the universe are published, there is still an outlet for those of us starved for the information and science behind the things we see in the sky.
There is a dazzling variety of books about astronomy that detail for us those things designed to slake our thirst for astronomical and cosmological thought.
Here is a list of the best astronomy books. The person who reads these books will immeasurably expand their understanding of the things they see through their telescope.
Best Astronomy Books By the Giants
All of the books in this category was written by a towering figure in the field of astronomy or cosmology. Whether it's because of their roles in the development of the thought in the field, or because of their ability to speak to the public about scientific concepts (sometimes very complex) in ways that ordinary people without science backgrounds can understand, all of these authors are beyond famous.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980)
Intended to be a companion to the television mini-series of the same name, each of the chapters in the book corresponds to an episode.
Cosmos touches on the history of science and the scientific method as our growing understanding of 15 billion years of change in the cosmos continue to unfold before our eyes and instruments.
At the time of its release, this book and the television to which it is a companion were cultural phenomena, spurring a whole generation of young people to enter the sciences as a career.
While not strictly and exclusively about astronomy, the book contains the musings of the beloved superstar at the height of his powers. Carl Sagan talks about the universe and science in his way, an interface that launched careers of a thousand scientists.
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (2010)
Greene has, in the last decade, taken his place as one of the astronomer laureates. This despite his position as an actual leading theorist in the field of string theory and its implications in the everyday life of the universe.
In The Elegant Universe, Greene talks about the effects of strings, from the behavior of the smallest sub-microscopic components, to the incomprehensible movements of galaxies and the universe as a whole.
The great thing about The Elegant Universe is that (and this is a theme that you'll see runs through many of these books) it takes complicated (at times nonsensical to the Newtonian-conditioned mind) material and conveys it in a way that the average person can not only understand, but moreover engage with enthusiastically.
Its quality is such that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the cannon of big popular astronomy books, this one stands out.
Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2014)
More of a collection of essays than a cohesive narrative, one of the most famous scientists in the world explains cosmological and astronomical phenomena with clarity and a geeky enthusiasm.
Because it's a series of essays, the subject matter reads like a hand-picked set of topics and what-if scenarios, such as the one from which the title of the book comes, wherein deGrasse Tyson talks about what it would be like to die in a black hole. It's the fun parts of cosmology distilled into a book.
Adding to the enjoyment of good writing about an interesting topic is spending some time with the mind of one of the luminaries of popular science. DeGrasse Tyson has become the voice of the sciences to an entire generation of people.
The Universe: From Flat Earth to Quasar by Isaac Asimov (1966)
What this one lacks in updates is made up for by the literary presence of Asimov. The publishing date means that it's missing some of the more cutting-edge information, but it's still very worthwhile to read an offering from Asimov, one of the world's most beloved and iconic scientists, who knew well how to make outlandishly complicated concepts palatable to the average person.
The Universe traces the development of man's conception of space and the science used to observe and understand it, all in a way that only Asimov could pull off.
Think of this one like a classic you can't miss. Pick up a copy.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1987)
Hawking's masterpiece begins with the astronomical studies of the ancient Greeks and proceeds from there to outline the history of cosmology in a fun and accessible style that has made this one of the leading popular science books of the last fifty years.
In A Brief History of Time, one of the great minds of our time explains the Big Bang, black holes, and light cones.
This is an overview of the subject, but it also ventures into an explanation of the some of the math that underlies the science. But fear not, Hawking's word on the math discussed here was that he managed to do it while only using one formula: E=mc2.
The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (2001)
This is Hawking's follow-up to fill in the new knowledge that came about since his landmark work, A Brief History of Time. Its having been written by Hawking alone makes it worth reading, but its modernity makes it a must buy.
This is the word on the most modern of accepted and theoretical science, conveyed by one of the greatest minds of all time. Its style is meant for broad audiences, so while the content is theoretical and at times heavy, the explanations aren't.
Lighter Fare (But Not Too Light)
These are some of the best astronomy books that still treat some of the weighty matter that the books in the previous category did, but they do so in a light-hearted way, even drifting frequently into the realm of comedy.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Comic writer Bill Bryson takes a stab at elaborating on the cosmos, leaving behind the forest trails of Appalachia for greater questions of celestial import.
Bryson begins at the beginning with a discussion of the Big Bang, then continues on to the rise of human civilization. All the while, he talks of these weighty matters with his at times hilarious style that has made him a favorite.
Practical Tomes: The Best Astronomy Books for Beginners
These books are more concerned with the how-to of astronomy. Rather than focusing on the concepts and nature of the Universe, they focus more on the practical considerations of astronomical observation, while at the same time providing the technical background you need to really grow as an astronomer.
The Backyard Astronomer's Guide by Terence Dickinson
The recently-updated edition of Dickinson's guide seeks to answer the questions that amateur astronomers might have at any given moment on their journey.
Mr. Dickinson has included an incredible number of pictures and illustrations to clarify the helpful information contained in the text. The information here is practical. This is a guide to get you up to speed on the specific tasks you need to do to get observing. Because it's a guide for amateurs, this book is light on theory and heavy on specific, practical instructions.
Astronomy 101 by Carolyn Collins Petersen
This is truly meant to be, as it says, a "crash course in the science of space". It seeks to present the basics of astronomy so beginners can get started right away and learn the things they immediately need to know.
While it lacks the direct, practical information on technical matters like how to choose a telescope, this book does a good job of covering huge amounts of ground. It eschews depth in favor of getting to all the concepts you absolutely have to know and understand.
This would be a good book for those who want to quickly get conversant in the vocabulary of astronomy and cosmology.
NightWatch: A Practical Guide by Terence Dickinson
Mr. Dickinson is a prolific writer, counting some fifteen books of which he is the author. We've included this one because it's one of the most popular books on stargazing in the last quarter century.
Along with the helpful charts for finding objects with a small telescope or binoculars, NightWatch also includes help for choosing the right equipment, including a recent update to include computerized telescopes.
Reviewers comment on the helpfulness of the new section on astrophotography that includes information on the latest digital cameras and equipment.
Astronomy: A Beginner's Guide to the Universe by Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan
This book is in its eighth edition, and it quickly becomes evident why it's managed to endure for so long.
While less concerned with some of the technical matters of telescope purchasing and set-up, this book does a fantastic job of clearly explaining the concepts that will help you to be a better astronomer. With extensive discussions of the science and history of the universe, this is a definitive word on what beginners need to know to be informed about astronomy and cosmology.
Readers comment on the quality of the material inside, as well the efficiently informative style in which it's written.
Discover the Stars by Richard Berry
The subtitle of this one, "Starwatching Using the Naked Eye, Binoculars, or a Telescope", says a lot about this book's purpose.
This isn't a complicated, overly-abstract text for those looking to understand the exact ins and outs of quantum mechanics. Instead, this astronomy text is specifically geared toward those who are using lower-powered methods to observe the skies.
Berry has styled this as an introduction and guide to discovering those things that can be seen with the naked eye, as well as those slightly-dimmer object than can be seen with a smaller telescope.
Berry is an authority on this subject by dint of his position as the editor of "Astronomy" magazine, a leading publication in the field.
The guide includes helpful star charts and instructions for how to find specific objects. This book also does a great job of connecting the constellations and objects you can see with the history and mythology of man's observation of them, delving into the stories that have been told about the objects through time.
Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide by Dina L. Moche
The self-teaching aspect of this one is a real boon to those of us who are just getting started with astronomy. The explanations of astronomical concepts are expertly explained without a lot of complicated math or overly-technical language.
This handsome book includes a ton of color images to enhance your self-guided journey into astronomy.
Because it's not just a dry, theoretical text, this book does a good job of engaging the reader, drawing you in to discover and practice the things that are discussed inside.
Take a Walk on the Cutting Edge
Newton? Einstein? They had no idea what they were talking about. This book will introduce you to a set of ideas that many consider to be heretical.
This one is a personal favorite, not just because it posits an idea that's considered CRAZY in some circles, but also because it pulls back the proverbial curtain on scientific academia. You really get a glimpse into the life of an academician.
In Faster Than the Speed of Light, Magueijo lays out his theory on the variable speed of light. In essence, all of the shortcomings in Einsteins theories can be explained away if one assumes that the speed of light was faster at some time in the past. Sounds kooky.
On top of the discussion of the variable speed of light, Magueijo discusses his life in academia. Even more interesting, he tells us a lot of the things that annoy us about his life in academia. Juicy.
Check it out.
The Villain's Corner
This last entry on the best astronomy books list was written by a man who was partially responsible for the demotion of dear Pluto to non-planet status. Booooo!!!!
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown (2010)
The villain in question here is Mike Brown, who was instrumental in the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris. This expansion of our knowledge of our solar neighborhood was great!
Unfortunately, the discovery of Eris resulted in a conversation that led to the change of Pluto's status from real planet (and the "Pizzas" in "My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas") to just another dwarf planet.
Despite this villainy, Brown's book is a worthy read because it connects the discovery of Eris and the subsequent demotion of Pluto to the underlying scientific concepts involved. It also contains a personal narrative of the discovery and aftermath.
You've got a lot of reading to do. Get to it. And when you're done, get back out there and check out the stars, but this time with a greater understanding of what you're looking at and how it works.