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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: planets, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 25
1. A Copernican eye-opener

Approximately 500 years ago a Polish lawyer, medical doctor, and churchman got a radical idea: that the earth was not fixed solidly in the middle of all space, but was spinning at a thousand miles per hour at its equator and was speeding around the sun at a dizzying rate. Unbelievable, critics said. If that were true, at the equator people would be spun off into space. And it would be much harder to walk west than east.

The post A Copernican eye-opener appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. 10 facts you should know about moons

Proving to be both varied and fascinating, moons are far more common than planets in our Solar System. Our own Moon has had a profound influence on Earth, not only through tidal effects, but even on the behaviour of some marine animals. But how much do we really know about moons?

The post 10 facts you should know about moons appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. Blue planet blues

The Earth we live on was formed from a cloud of dust and ice, heated by a massive ball of compressed hydrogen that was the early Sun. Somewhere along the four billion year journey to where we are today, our planet acquired life, and some of that became us. Our modern brains ask how it all came together and progressed, and what shaped the pathways it followed.

The post Blue planet blues appeared first on OUPblog.

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4. How the Sun got to Coco’s House

sunfrontcoverGentle cadences full of poetry and quiet snapshots of the waking world fill How the Sun Got to Coco’s House by Bob Graham, one of my very favourite of all books published last year.

It playfully follows the sun as dawn breaks in different locations around the globe, introducing readers to all sorts of children and their families and showing a moment in time that we all love to experience whatever our backgrounds and wherever we are in the world: the delight that the first rays of sunshine can bring – the warmth, the hope, the sense of adventure and optimism. Eventually the sunshine makes it to Coco’s home, presaging a day of joyous outdoor play with friends, leaving readers with a gentle and lovely glow of joy and delight in something so simple and universal.

Graham’s storytelling is full of tiny but magical moments – capturing the sun shining on a kid’s bicycle bell or making shadows in the snowy footprints of a young child. Lyrical and understated, you’ll appreciate the first rays of sun you see after reading this in a brand new light (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Whilst capturing the drama of beams of light when all around is dark has been brilliantly achieved by others (for example Klassen’s illustrations for Lemony Snicket’s The Dark), Graham dazzles with his sunbeams even when they are surrounded by brightness. Equally successful in bringing focus and intensity to vast landscapes as capturing the epitome of personal warmth felt in homes, between loved ones, Graham’s soft, pastel-hued illustrations really bring the world alive, helping us find wonder again in the everyday.

cocoinside3

cocoinside1

cocoinside2

Having delighted in How the Sun Got to Coco’s House I gave my kids a slip of paper with the word ORRERY on it. Words are such fun, and this one is a real delight. The challenge was to find out what an orrery is, why it’s relevant to this book and then to build (a simple) one. This treasure hunt introduced us to:

Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery, possibly after Charles Jervas oil on canvas, (1707) NPG 894 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery, possibly after Charles Jervas
oil on canvas, (1707)
NPG 894
© National Portrait Gallery, London

and to

Graham portrait" by Unknown - http://cosmone.com/timepiece/agenda/look-graham-london-legacy. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Graham_portrait.jpg#/media/File:Graham_portrait.jpg

“Graham portrait” by Unknown – http://cosmone.com/timepiece/agenda/look-graham-london-legacy. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Graham_portrait.jpg#/media/File:Graham_portrait.jpg

and then eventually led us to this:

orrerybackgound

orrerybackgound2

orrerybackgound3

and finally to this:

orreryinaction3

orreryinaction

Watch our play in action!

This small orrery shows the relative movement of the moon around the earth, and the earth around the sun, enabling me to explain to my girls how it is not that the sun actually moves around the earth (the descriptions of the sun’s movements in How the Sun Got to Coco’s House might lead listeners to think that this is the case). Rather, what’s happening is that the surface of the earth facing the sun changes as the earth rotates, giving the illusion of the sun moving around the earth.

Now I can’t claim any of the honours for this fabulous orrery. During our treasure hunt for information about orreries we discovered the inspirational videos created by the amazing Mr Newham who works at Ivydale Primary School in South London. In this video he shows how to make a simple orrery with very basic materials:

What’s even more brilliant is that Mr Newham sells kits to make these orreries (and many other brilliant D&T projects) and so we thought we’d give one a go. At £6 I don’t think I could have bought the materials cheaper myself and the service provided by Ivydale Science & Technology Service (Mr Newham’s shop front) was super swift and efficient.

I don’t normally recommend specific products of companies but I can’t resist doing so in this case because the kit and service was so good, and what’s more, the kits are available for entire classes, or individually for families at home. I’ve ordered a whole selection of kits now and so far every one of them has been a huge hit with my girls. So a big hurrah for Mr Newham and the way he’s facilitated my kids (and me!) getting excited about all sorts of aspects of science, design and technology!

Whilst making our orrery and space background (by running our fingers over toothbrushes covered in white paint) we listened to:

  • Sunny Day by Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles
  • Sunshine Through My Window by Play Date
  • And all of our favourite science CD – Here Comes Science by They Might be Giants (you can hear a little accidentally in the background of our video above)

  • Other activities which would work well alongside reading How the Sun Got to Coco’s House include:

  • Investigating how plants will go to all sorts of ends to follow the sun, by making this bean maze
  • Playing with mirrors to direct sunlight where you want it. Be inspired by the communities in these valleys in Norway and Italy who alleviate winter darkness by redirecting the sun’s light with giant mirrors. Here’s a more fully fledged lesson plan for older kids which explores similar ground.
  • Carry out science experiments which require the sun. Here’s one to create clean(er) water. Here’s another which investigates UV light. Or what about this one which helps kids understand how sunscreen works?
  • If you liked this post you might like these other posts by me:

  • Solar powered jars of happiness (inspired by The Jar of Happiness by Ailsa Burrows)
  • Creating planets from polystyrene balls and marbling paints (inspired by The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets)
  • sunextras

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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.

    3 Comments on How the Sun got to Coco’s House, last added: 1/22/2016
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    5. Night Sky Watcher (and drawing with the light of stars)

    Winter nights are undeniably great for cosy reading on the sofa, but they’re also often ideal for star gazing with kids. Early darkness, not long after getting home from school, combined with frosty, clear nights means that we’re able to look up at the moon, stars and planets long before bedtime. There’s nothing like a bit of awe and wonder before your fishfingers for supper, we’ve discovered.

    nightskywatcherNight Sky Watcher by Raman Prinja is the latest astronomy book we’ve been using to aid our journeys through the night sky. It’s chock full of practical advice, not only on how to find constellations and planets when you tilt your head up to the darkness above, but also how to make your star gazing fun and easy.

    Night Sky Watcher has separate sections on observing stars, planets and “unusual sights” such as satellites, meteor showers and eclipses. Richly illustrated with astronomical photos, short boxes and bubbles deliver bite-sized parcels of facts and viewing advice, supplemented by activity ideas ranging from joining up stars to form your own constellation to acting out planetary orbits with friends. I love the book’s emphasis on going out there and doing astronomy, not just reading about it.

    One aspect which has worked especially well for us is the star spotting guide; constellations are presented in their stellar context, with Prinja showing us how once we’ve found one set of stars we can use that constellation to navigate to another. “Star-hopping” has been a big hit and has really extended the girls’ previous experience and understanding of looking up at the celestial sky.

    interiornightskywatcher

    The book’s design is rather clever; it comes in a silver edged zipper pouch, which immediately suggests adventurous astronaut gear. The book isn’t “just” a book, it’s part of your night sky watching equipment designed for taking outside and using in situ. The book’s interior feels equally modern and slick with “astrofacts” appearing every few pages on an iPad/tablet screen and glossy paper adding to the sheen and sparkle of the astronomical photos.

    Before heading into the dark to look for stars the girls and I boosted our star-pattern recognition skills but making our own bag of indoor magnetic stars which we could move around on the fridge and radiators to form the constellations we’d be looking for once we got outside.

    We used:

  • LEDs
  • CR2032 3V lithium batteries
  • Black electrical tape
  • Small magnets
  • starsstep

    bulkstars

    Once we had a handful of glowing “stars” we set about making the constellations we wanted to look for in the night sky. Alongside Night Sky Watcher we also used this constellation crib sheet to help us place our stars in the right patterns on a radiator in a dark room.

    starsonradiator

    makingconstellations2

    makingconstellations1

    Can you tell which constellation this is meant to be?  It's the central part of Orion, featuring the belt, Betelgeuse (top left) and Rigel (bottom right).

    Can you tell which constellation this is meant to be?
    It’s the central part of Orion, featuring the belt, Betelgeuse (top left) and Rigel (bottom right).

    Once we’d made a few constellations the girls got another idea. Recalling the time we “scribbled” with light (using a long shutter release on my camera), M and J wanted to draw the constellations in the air; in Night Sky Watcher (as in standard practice when learning about constellations), the stars are “joined up” by lines to give the constellation’s outline, and it was these outlines that the girls wanted to try and draw.

    makingconstellations3

    Can you recognise this constellation?! It’s meant to be Cassiopeia…

    Drawing the constellations wasn’t as easy as using the light magnets to lay out the right patterns and soon our “drawing with the light of stars” became rather free-form.

    makingconstellations5

    Whilst making our magnetic stars we listened to:

  • Comet 67P clicking, humming, singing?
  • This playlist from the BBC: Music to watch stars by, part of Stargazing Live.
  • Full Moon, Full Moon by Papa Crow – a big hit this one with us all.

  • Other activities which might go well with reading Night Sky Watcher include:

  • Creating constellation candle holders, using this tutorial from Design Sponge
  • Setting up a google alert for news about space exploration. If your child (or you) wants to keep informed about the latest news regarding spaces research and discoveries, you can set up an alert to send you a news digest at a frequency to suit you. Go to https://www.google.co.uk/alerts and type in the terms you’re interested in eg “space”, “exploration”, “lunar”, “comet”. “astronaut” etc. You can then choose to receive notification (via email) of relevant news items, as it happens, once a day or once a week.
  • Building your own starry night visible whatever the weather. There are no instructions with this image, but I love the idea of filling a small courtyard with this sort of installation art.
  • Being inspired by this newly released image of the Andromeda galaxy (the most detailed image to date) to create your own star filled horizon using the splattering of paint. KokokoKIDS does this for falling snow (scroll down a little to the scene with the row of houses), but if you did it on black paper I think it could look like a star filled night instead.
  • Using marshmallows and toothpick instead of LEDs to make constellations, inspired by Edventures with Kids.
  • Other space books we’ve enjoyed recently are How to be a Space Explorer written by Mark Brakea nd illustrated by Emma Jones and Space Exploration: A Three-Dimensional Expanding Pocket Guide by John Holcroft. What space books have you recently discovered?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Night Sky Watcher by the publisher.

    3 Comments on Night Sky Watcher (and drawing with the light of stars), last added: 1/29/2015
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    6. Space Dog by Mini Grey: Out of this world playfulness!

    spacedogcoverOut in the depths of the Spooniverse Space Dog is getting read to return home following a long mission sorting out planetary problems in the Dairy Quadrant. Just as he starts to unwind a distress call comes through on his Laser Display Screen. Without a moment’s hesitation our super hero, Space Dog, jumps to and rescues the occupant of a flying saucer drowning in an thick ocean of cream on a nearby planet. But what’s this?

    It turns out he’s saved his sworn enemy: Astrocat.

    Uh-Oh.

    Will they be able to put aside their differences as another cry for help comes in over the space ship tannoy? Will teamwork triumph as they face terror together?

    Space Dog by Mini Grey is an anarchic, adrenalin-packed adventure of The Highest Order. Utterly and joyously playful, wildly and lavishly imaginative, this dynamic and delightful journey exploring space and friendship is sublime.

    Grey’s witty language, from the hilarious exclamations made by Space Dog (“Thundering milkswamps!”, “Shivering Stilton!”) to the deliciously outlandish names of rare alien life forms (the Cruets of West Cutlery, the Fruitons of Crumble Major) has had us all giggling time and again, even on the 15th reading of Space Dog. Her pacing is timed to perfection, with dramatic stretches interspersed with moments of great relief and humour, drawing readers, listeners, grown-ups, children ever more closely in to Grey’s fantastic, phenomenal universe Spooniverse.

    spacedoginsid0

    Grey’s illustrations are equally packed with panache. From the detailing given to brand labels and packaging (whether on space food or game boxes) to her powerful use of suggestion (look out for what is almost missing off the page on the spread immediately before Space Dog and Astrocat land on Cheesoid 12, or the shadow redolent with threat as they turn to leave the Cheesy planet), Grey’s illustrations richly illuminate the world she has built to share with us, giving enormous pleasure every time they are returned to.

    spacedoginsid2

    Although there are echoes of super hero comic strips and silent movies with their intertitles, dramatic soundtracks and expressive emotions theatrically mimed, Mini Grey’s visual and verbal style is truly unique. Spirited and inventive, Space Dog is an outstanding book and fortunately you can find it right here right now in our very own universe.

    spacedoginsid3

    Every single page turn of Space Dog was met with “Mummy, can we do that??!!”, whether it was making a planet out of cereal packets, coming up with a recipe for supper based on the Spaghetti Entity in the Pastaroid Belt, designing our own version of Dogopoly, rustling up Astrocat’s cake, making spewing tomato ketchup volcanoes, or playing with fondue. In the end we settled for making spaceships for the characters in the book, and flying them over our patio.

    spaceships1

    Using this fantastic tutorial from one of my favourite library blogs as a starting point, we created spaceships using paperplates, plastic cups and stickers. Where Pop Goes the Page used toilet cardboard rolls, we used yoghurt pots instead, and aliens were replaced by Space Dog and other astonauts cut out from print-offs of these drawing pages created by Mini Grey.

    spaceships2

    We dressed up as astronauts ourselves, making space suits from disposable painting overalls, decorated with electrical tape and completed with control panels from cardboard.

    spaceships4

    Once appropriately attired we were ready to launch our space ships. Unlike Pop Goes the Page we used nylon bead thread rather than wire to make a zip line, partly because this is what we had to hand, but also because it’s extremely smooth and there are no issues with kinking. One end was tied to the bathroom window, the other to the end of the washing line in the garden.

    spaceships3

    Soon spaceships were zooming all over our patio…

    Later we turned our hand to making hats for a fruit and vegetable parade, inspired by the hat competition which Space Dog has to judge:

    spacedoginsid1

    hatcompetition

    We used origami hat tutorials to come up with these millinery masterpieces, including this army cap and samurai helmet with plenty more hat ideas here.

    Whilst making our spaceships and competition-winning hats we listened to:

  • The bilingual song Los Planetas by Nathalia
  • Cheese Please by Chris Stapleton – essential listening for any cheese lover :-)
  • Sputniks and Mutniks by Ray Anderson & The Home Folks. I discovered this thanks to this interesting NPR article, Sputniks in Space.

    Other activities you could try inspired by Space Dog include:

  • Making space ships big enough for kids (and their grownups?) to fit in. A large cardboard box, a roll of tin foil and some plastic lids or moulded plastic from biscuit boxes is all you need to get you started. (Here’s one we made earlier).
  • Playing with your food. Mini is just so inventive when it comes to playing with food, but if you want even more ideas, you could take a look at Carl Warner’s A World of Food or The Art of Clean Up by Ursus Wehrli. Both of these books are massive hits with my kids.
  • Reading the extraordinary graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis. This is more for us grown ups than the kids (though my 10 year old has read it) but I can’t resist recommending it whilst I’ve got a chance.
  • Would you like to go into space if you had the chance?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Space Dog by the book’s publisher.

    2 Comments on Space Dog by Mini Grey: Out of this world playfulness!, last added: 5/7/2015
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    7. Pluto and Charon at last!

    NASA’s New Horizons probe swept past Pluto and its moons at 17 km per second on 14 July. Even from the few close up images yet beamed back we can say that Pluto’s landscape is amazing. Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is quite a sight too, and I’m glad that I delayed publication of my forthcoming Very Short Introduction to Moons so that I could include it.

    The post Pluto and Charon at last! appeared first on OUPblog.

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    8. NASA discovers water on Mars again: take it with a pinch of salt

    The discovery of water on Mars has been claimed so often that I’d forgive anyone for being skeptical about the latest announcement. Frozen water, ice, has been proven on Mars in many places, there are lots of ancient canyons hundreds of kilometres long that must have been carved by rivers, and much smaller gullies that are evidently much younger.

    The post NASA discovers water on Mars again: take it with a pinch of salt appeared first on OUPblog.

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    9. Mars, Pluto… and beyond

    The story of our Solar System is developing into one of the most absorbing – and puzzling – epics of contemporary science. At the heart of it lies one of the greatest questions of all – just how special is our own planet, which teems with life and (this is the difficult bit) which has teemed with life continuously through most of its 4.5 billion year lifetime? Not all of the answers are to be found here on Earth.

    The post Mars, Pluto… and beyond appeared first on OUPblog.

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    10. Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet


    Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet
    by Buzz Aldrin (with Marianne J. Dyson)
    National Geographic Kids, 2015
    review copy provided by the publisher

    Buzz Aldrin is a man with a vision. He truly believes that we can and should make plans to colonize Mars. He boldly states,
    "Plans for building the first homes on Mars are already in progress. Through this book, you'll learn why I think it's time to commit ourselves to building a permanent home on the red planet."
    This book walks the reader through preparing to go to Mars, getting to Mars, landing on Mars and constructing homes, and the potential to change the climate of Mars after 1000 years of human habitation on the red planet.

    I am continually telling my students not to be worried that all of the possibilities for scientific discovery will be used up by the time they grow up. This book is proof of that. The amount of creative thinking and problem solving that will go (has gone) into this possibility (probability/reality) is absolutely mind-boggling.


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    11. #771 – Totally Wacky Facts about Space by Emma Carlson Berne

    Totally Wacky Facts About Space Series: Mind Benders Written by Emma Carlson Berne Capstone Press    8/01/2015 978-1-4914-6526-4 240 pages       Ages 8—12 “Ever wondered what astronauts do with their dirty underwear? Or which astronaut played golf on the moon? If you’re looking for wacky factoids and out-of-this-world trivia, this book has it …

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    12. Place of the Year nominee spotlight: Dwarf planet Pluto

    This July, a NASA space probe completed our set of images of the planets, at least as I knew them growing up. New Horizons, a probe that launched back in 2006, arrived at Pluto and its moons, and over a very brief encounter, started to send back thousands of images of this hitherto barely known place.

    The post Place of the Year nominee spotlight: Dwarf planet Pluto appeared first on OUPblog.

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    13. What Gets in the Way of Critical Literacy? _ CLIP 11

    Re-visiting Pluto and What Gets in the Way of Practicing Critical Literacy? In this show: Re-visiting Pluto’s Demotion and What gets in the way of creating spaces for critical literacy? Special Thanks To: Mitzi Lewison, Sarah VanderZanden, Amanda Vender, and Heather for commenting on the show. I also want to say thank you to Kathleen Fay for the [...]

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    14. Questioning and Researching from the Start _ CLIP 8

    Questioning and Researching from the Start In this show: “Pluto, I Found Him!”, Taking Social Action in 2nd Grade. Special Thanks to : Carol Felderman for contributing to the show. Participate in the show. Subscribe and listen in iTunes XML Feed Location : feed://www.bazmakaz.com/clip/?feed=rss2 Let me know where you are by clicking on ‘Join the CLIP Frappr Map’ in the menu [...]

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    15. Gratz Industries Has Relocated!

    At long last, our corporate offices have moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Bakersville, North Carolina, near Penland School of Crafts. It's been an exasperating experience to say the least - on TOP of the usual pressures of moving.

    First, well, how to put it? We couldn't get everything we owned on the dang truck. If I hadn't been so mad and so completely dog-tired, I would have pulled out the camera to document it for you. But I was, and I didn't. We ended up stacking a bunch of our seasonal stuff and our four metal deck chairs outside under the cover of the metal roof that shields the deck on our old home, and now I'm going to have to return for the stuff when I'm back in Georgia to do a library visit next week.

    Here in North Carolina we had a beautiful day for unpacking. We were able to pull the truck right up to the front door and load right into the house too, so we had no up and down the ramp. Check it out:


    See that big empty front yard? That's where we're going to build our new house. SOON. And here's Jo on the moving bridge:

    So while we were unloading the truck, we accidentally broke a huge round mirror that goes to a bureau in Jo's room. And I mean we SMASHED it. It completely blew up.

    Now, if we were superstitious folks, we would say we just bought ourselves seven years of bad luck at our new home. But we're not superstitious folks.

    It took all day, and it wore us out . . .

    But we finally got everything into the house. Thankfully, the owners had emptied out all the junk that had been sitting in the house. UNfortunately, they just dumped it in the yard:

    Thanks. Thanks very much. *I* could have done that. But at least I didn't have to do it while we were moving in, I guess.

    So, remember, we're not superstitious folks. So when we were returning the truck to Johnson City, Tennessee, (an hour and a half drive!) and we got a call from our mortgage lender and were told that we would not be able to close the next day, as we had once planned, we didn't chalk it up to a completely unrelated broken mirror.

    Nor did we get suspicious when our new electric oven from Lowe's caught on fire and had to be replaced.

    Or when a pipe burst under the house and we had no water for a day.

    Or when the fuel oil started to leak and we had to turn off the heat the day after that. And when we had it repaired, we learned the tank was almost empty.

    Or Wendi's sudden dental emergency, with the nearest dentist on our plan in Johnson City, and the earliest they can see her May 1st.

    And we've been here exactly one week.

    Then yesterday, perhaps tempting fate, I attempted to have a fire in our fireplace . . .

    And it worked just fine.

    Seriously, we don't blame all these things on a broken mirror. I blame instead the renters who lived in this place before we did. They abused the heck out of the place, and we're just cleaning up their mess.

    I suppose the renters can't be blamed for the oven catching on fire. Or for Wendi's toothache. But there is such a thing as coincidence.

    We'd just prefer that the odd coincidences stop now, thank you.

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    16. Apparently, I am 10 years old


    Remember that Futurama episode where we first see the Professor's Smell-o-scope?

    FRY: This is a great, as long as you don't make me smell Uranus. Heh heh.
    LEELA: I don't get it.
    PROFESSOR FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 to end that stupid joke once and for all.
    FRY: Oh. What's it called now?
    PROFESSOR FARNSWORTH: Urectum.

    Anyway, Uranus is one of my nightmares as someone who works with children. I mean, witness the REAL conversation I had last year:

    Little Boy: Do have a book called Exploring Uranus?
    Me: Did your older brother put you up to this?!

    Turns out, he had just read Exploring Jupiter and wanted the next book.

    ANYWAY! Today, we got a book in called A Look at Uranus.

    I keep giggling to myself. tee hee hee!

    Yes, I am 10. Shut up.

    1 Comments on Apparently, I am 10 years old, last added: 8/17/2008
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    17. Right now in Speculative Fiction


    catchingfireFrom Presenting Lenore, we hear the first public viewing for The Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, will occur at BEA. Think those babies are going to be snatched up pretty quickly? Now how can I get one?

    fragile_eternityMelissa Marr’s hugely anticipated sequel (is this the right word for third in a series) Fragile Eternity has launched. Melissa is bringing us back to the story of Seth and Aislinn and Keenan. Me? I’m looking forward to it. And one great thing I love about reading books is being able to recommend them to others.

    Do kids like speculative fiction? Check this list out before you answer. There are some amazing speculative fiction books on this year’s YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten Nominations list.

    Stardate 05.07.09 - Need I say more? dscn2170

    And finally, the stuff science fiction was born from. Is Gliese 581 d or e the next Earth?

    pjhoover_casual1

    PJ Hoover is ready for other planets to be colonized.

    Posted in P. J. Hoover Tagged: books, news, planets, sequels

    12 Comments on Right now in Speculative Fiction, last added: 5/17/2009
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    18. A Planet and Not a Planet

    Life can't stop while waiting for our copies of The Last Olympian to arrive. Our fellow guybrarian, blog follower, and sith lord Devin has sent us a really good nonfiction review:

    Author’s Name: Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Book Title: The Pluto Files : the rise and fall of America's favorite planet

    This book was about:
    The Pluto Files chronicles Pluto in two ways- first, as a planet and how it is discovered. And then second, in terms of modern science and trying to answer the question of how Pluto fits into our solar system.

    The book is very interesting and explains, in a way that is easy for non-rocket scientists to understand, how planets are observed and discovered. The history of Pluto is complete, and the book makes you feel as though you have met all the people involved. The Pluto Files shows you how planets get names, who decides what is a planet and what words like planet and asteroid really mean.

    I liked (or didn’t like) this book because:
    I enjoy science and this book is full of interesting scientific knowledge in a language that is easy to read. I loved it!

    Your name: Devin

    Thanks, Devin! The planets are extremely interesting and the more you learn, the more interesting they become. I've always wondered who decides what a planet is and how the names are chosen. I bet you guys have wondered too. Go check this book and find out!

    Carl

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    19. How the world works…

    In my mini series reviewing the books shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2011 next up is How The World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young

    A pop-up book covering a wealth of ground, How The World Works is a tremendous introduction to topics as diverse as the solar system, evolution, plate tectonics, the water cycle, weather systems, photosynthesis and food chains.

    Each double page spread covers one theme and explores it using exciting illustrations, illuminating paper engineering and and array of both key and intriguing facts presented in inviting, bite-sized portions. The illustrations have the rich colours and boldness you often see with Barefoot Books (though this is actually published by Templar). The short sections of text make this an undaunting book for young independent readers.

    As well of plenty of flaps and tabs, there are lots of instances where the paper engineering really adds to your understanding of the topic under discussion. For example the big bang explosion is a brilliantly executed bit of fold out paper – simple, but very effective as it mimics an explosion. How the continents have drifted over time is beautifully illustrated with a flip book – by flipping the pages we can actually see the continents drifting from the supercontinent Pangaea about 200 million years ago to their current location.

    Again, the paper engineering is put to exceptional use to illustrate what happens at different types of plate boundary; Andy Mansfield, the brains behind the pop-up aspect of this book, has created paper tricks that are not only great fun but, but informative and meaningful.

    This book contains a subtle but consistent message about how we as humans are having an impact on the earth and what the consequences of our actions will be. In the section on carbon there are tips about how we can reduce our carbon footprint, whilst the pages devoted to how plants work draw attention to the problems caused by deforestation. In the discussion of ocean currents and tides we’re introduced to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “an area of plastic rubbish twice the size of Texas” floating in the Pacific ocean, whilst when exploring the the planets, the large quantity of space junk orbiting the earth is highlighted. Not only does this book tell us how the world works, it also makes us think about how it’s beginning to break down.

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    20. Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

    This Day in World History

    February 13, 1633

    Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

    Source: Library of Congress.

    Sixty-nine years old, wracked by sciatica, weary of controversy, Galileo Galilei entered Rome on February 13, 1633. He had been summoned by Pope Urban VIII to an Inquisition investigating his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The charge was heresy. The cause was Galileo’s support of the Copernican theory that the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun.

    Nicolas Copernicus had published his heliocentric theory in 1543. His ideas were condemned by religious leaders — not only Catholic ones but also Protestants Martin Luther and John Calvin — because they contradicted the Bible. Slowly, though, astronomers began to accept the sun-centered universe.

    Galileo’s own acceptance, forged in the 1590s, grew stronger in 1609, when he used a new invention, the telescope, to study the planets. Discovering that the Moon had craters, Jupiter was orbited by moons, and Venus had phases like the Moon, he rejected the accepted belief that the heavens were fixed, perfect, and revolving around Earth.

    Church authorities, however, objected to a 1613 letter he wrote supporting the Copernican theory. At a hearing, he was told not to actively promote Copernican ideas. A document placed in the records of the proceeding went further, saying he was ordered never to discuss the theory in any way, but evidence suggests that Galileo’s understanding the document was planted after the meeting by enemies.

    By the late 1620s, Galileo believed that Pope Urban would be more open to his ideas than earlier popes. He wrote the Dialogue as a conversation between a Copernican and an adherent of the Church’s geocentric theory, hoping to escape condemnation by presenting both views. The ploy failed, and he was summoned. The panel of cardinals decided to ban his book, force him to abjure Copernican ideas, and sentence him to imprisonment. A few months later, the old man was released to his home, where he lived until 1642.

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    21. Mars: A geologist’s perspective

    By David Rothery


    So Mars is ‘Place of the Year’! It has the biggest volcano in the Solar System — Olympus Mons — amazing dust storms, and the grandest canyon of all — Valles Marineris. Mind you, the surface area of Mars is almost the same as the total area of dry land on Earth, so to declare Mars as a whole to be ‘place of the year’ seems a little vague, given that previous winners (on Earth) have been islands or single countries. If you pushed me to specify a particular place on Mars most worthy of this accolade I would have to say Gale crater, the location chosen for NASA’s Curiosity Rover which landed with great success on 6 August.

    This was chosen from a shortlist of several sites offering access to layers of martian sediment that had been deposited over a long time period, and thus expected to preserve evidence of how surface conditions have changed over billions of years. Gale crater is just over 150 km in diameter, but the relatively smooth patch within the crater where a landing could be safely attempted is only about 20 km across, and no previous Mars lander has been targeted with such high precision.

    Perspective view of Gale crater. Curiosity landed in the ellipse within the nearest part of the crater. Image Credit: NASA

    The thing that makes Gale one of the most special of Mars’s many craters is that its centre is occupied by a 5 km high mound, nicknamed Mount Sharp, made of eroded layers of sediment. To judge from its performance so far, the nuclear powered Curiosity Rover looks well capable of traversing the crater floor and then making its way up Mount Sharp layer by layer, reading Mars’s history as it goes. The topmost layers are probably rock made from wind-blown sand and dust. The oldest layers, occurring near the base of the central mound, will be the most interesting, because they appear to contain clay minerals of a kind that can form only in standing water. If that’s true, Curiosity will be able to dabble around in material that formed in ponds and lakes at a time when Mars was wetter and warmer than today. It will probably take a year or so to pick its way carefully across ten or so km of terrain to the exposures of the oldest, clay-bearing rocks, but already Curiosity has seen layers of pebbly rock that to a geologist are a sure sign that fast-flowing rivers or storm-fed flash-floods once crossed the crater floor.

    Layers at the base of Mount Sharp that Curiosity will analyze. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

    The geologist in me wants to study the record of changing martian environments over time, because I like to find out what makes a planet tick. However the main reason why Mars continues to be the target for so many space missions, is that in the distant past — when those clay deposits were forming – its surface conditions could have been suitable for life to become established. Curiosity’s suite of sophisticated science instruments is designed to study rocks to determine whether they formed at a time when conditions were suitable for life. They won’t be able to prove that life existed, which will be a task for a future mission. If life ever did occur on Mars, then it might persist even today, if only in the form of simple microbes. Life probably will not be found at the surface, which today is cold, arid and exposed to ultraviolet light thanks to the thinness of its atmosphere, but within the soil or underneath rocks.

    Finding life — whether still living or extinct — on another world would offer fundamental challenges to our view of our own place in the Universe. Currently we know of at least two other worlds in our Solar System where life could exist — Mars and Jupiter’s satellite Europa. It has also become clear that half the 400 billion stars in our Galaxy have their own planets. If conditions suitable for life occur on only a small fraction of those, that is still a vast number of potential habitats.

    So, are we alone, or not? We don’t know how common it is for life to get started: some scientists think that it is inevitable, given the right conditions. Others regard it as an extremely rare event. If we were to find present or past life on Mars, then, provided we could rule out natural cross-contamination by local meteorites, this evidence of life starting twice in one Solar System would make it virtually unthinkable that it had not started among numerous planets of other stars too. Based on what we know today, Earth could be the only life-bearing planet in the Galaxy, but if we find independent life on Mars, then life, and probably intelligence, is surely abundant everywhere. As the visionary Arthur C. Clarke put it: “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  Terrifying or not, I’d like to know the answer. I don’t think Mars holds the key, but it surely holds one of the numbers of the combination-lock.

    David Rothery is a Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the Open University UK, where he chairs a course on planetary science and the search for life. He is the author of Planets: A Very Short Introduction. Read his previous blog post: “Is there life on Mars?”

    The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday!

    Oxford University Press’ annual Place of the Year, celebrating geographically interesting and inspiring places, coincides with its publication of Atlas of the World — the only atlas published annually — now in its 19th Edition. The Nineteenth Edition includes new census information, dozens of city maps, gorgeous satellite images of Earth, and a geographical glossary, once again offering exceptional value at a reasonable price. Read previous blog posts in our Place of the Year series.

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    22. Cakes in space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

    Imagine packing up your home, leaving Earth and setting out to travel across space to colonise a new planet.

    The journey will take so long you’ll be put into a cryptobiotic state. But there is absolutely nothing to fear: You’re on sleek new spaceship, looked after by a team of well-programmed robots, and everything has been carefully thought through. When you finally arrive at Nova Mundi (it only takes 199 years to get there), you’ll be woken up to a delicious breakfast and the start of a whole new and wonderful life.

    It sounds great, doesn’t it?

    cakesinspacecoverAnd so it is in Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Astra and her family are on their way to their new home but – you’ve guessed it – something goes wrong. Astra wakes from her suspended sleep, and feeling peckish goes off in search of a chocolate biscuit.

    The Nom-O-Tron (a highly developed version of Star Trek’s Replicator) satisfies Astra’s request, but when she’s tempted to ask for something a little more outlandish (how many times have you seen the word “Ultimate” used to describe a dish?) something goes awry. Soon Astra is hurtling through space surrounded by cakes which have learned to evolve. Cakes which are fed up of being eaten themselves. Cakes which have developed a killer instinct.

    Will Astra be able to save her family from the Ravenous Crispy Slices and Ferocious Fruit Cakes stalking the spaceship’s corridors? How much more complicated will things get when a second front opens up and her spaceship is raided by alien life forms known as Poglites, desperately searching for their holy grail, that technology which they haven’t been able to master: SPOONS.

    Yes, this is a totally surreal and deliciously outrageous story of friendship, ingenuity and hundreds and thousands.

    It’s fast-moving, exciting, just ever so slightly scary in that enjoyably adrenalin pumping way and above all it’s FUNNY! Add into the mix some genuinely beautiful writing (sometimes young fiction is all about the plot and the language – especially for an adult reading it aloud – can be somewhat unremarkable, but Reeve at times writes sentences which I found myself wanting to copy out), a plot which will enthral both boys and girls of a wide age range, and the subtle inclusion of some philosophically meatier issues (the consequences of greedy desire, the demonisation of that which we don’t know and can’t name) and you’ve got yourself a remarkable book.

    Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post - well worth reading!

    Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post – well worth reading!

    McIntyre’s illustrations are a crazy but perfect mix of 1950s brave new world sleekness and outrageous sponge-and-icing based fantasy. I’m delighted that Astra’s family are mixed race (this isn’t mentioned in the text at all, but how great to see some diversity just as-is, without it being an issue in the book).

    The top-notch content of Cakes in Space is matched by a stunningly produced physical book. Like last year’s Reeve and McIntyre production, Oliver and the Seawigs, this is first being published as a small hardback in pleasingly chunky, strokingly hand-holdable format. Everything about the book is appealing.

    After indulging in a solo read, I read this book aloud to both girls over a couple of days last week. Before we’d even finished the books my girls were off to raid the cutlery draw in the kitchen for highly prized spoons to create a collection of which any Poglite would be proud.

    spooncollection1

    spooncollection2

    Carefully curated, they labelled every spoon with where it had been found in the galaxy, its rarity and its monetary value (I can see how this could develop into a Top Trumps game…)
    spooncollection3

    Spoons are one thing, but cake is another, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to host our own mini Cakes in Space party. We baked a host of fairy cakes and then turned them into KILLER CAKES…

    cakesinspace3

    Lollies made great eyes on stalks…

    cakesinspace6

    … as did Maltesers and Aero balls.

    cakesinspace9

    We had fun making teeth out of snapped white chocolate buttons, tictacs and rice paper snipped to look like rows of sharp teeth.

    cakesinspace10

    We also had some Ferocious Florentines and Sinister Swiss Rolls (helped along with edible eyes).

    cakesinspace4

    cakesinspace5

    Other characters from the book were also present: The Nameless Horror was a big bowl of wobbly jelly dyed black with food colouring and with licorice shoelaces reaching out across the table, and jars of purple gloop (thinned down Angel Delight, again dyed to give a good purple colour) with gummy snakes in them made perfect Poglite snacks. Alas these were guzzled before I got to take a photo!

    Preparing for the party was at least as much fun as the party itself…

    cakesinspace7

    Great music for a Cakes in Space party includes:

  • Cake by Mindy Hester & The Time Outs – heavily influenced by George Michael’s Faith
  • Peggy Seeger with Ewan MacColl, “The Space Girl’s Song”
  • I like Pie, I like Cake by the Four Clefs
  • To the Moon by the Mighty Buzzniks
  • Man in the Moon by The Full English. This comes from the album Sarah McIntyre listened to a lot whilst illustrating Cakes in Space.
  • Crunch munchy honey cakes by The Wiggles… not everyone’s cup of tea but it is sort of earwormy…
  • Other activities which would make for a great Cakes in Space party include:

  • COSTUMES! Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve have the most amazing Cakes in Space costumes (you can see them here), but if you want some inspiration for your own costumes you could try these: Using a bucket and plastic tray to create an astronaut costume as per Spoonful, how to create a papier-mâché helmet on StitchCraftCreations, a Pinterest board dedicated to cake costumes.
  • ROBOTS! I’d pile a load of “junk” from the recycling bin on the table and let the kids loose on designing and building their own robots or spaceships. NurtureStore has some ideas to get you going.
  • SLEEPING PODS! For the grown ups at the party if no-one else… You could use large cardboard boxes painted silver lined with duvets, and with the lids cut out and replaced with something see-through, with bottle tops/lids stuck on for the various buttons… you get the idea!
  • We’ve all heard of Death by Chocolate, but what’s the nearest you’ve come to being killed by a cake?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Cakes in Space from the publishers.

    4 Comments on Cakes in space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, last added: 8/18/2014
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    23. Are we alone in the Universe?

    World Space Week has prompted myself and colleagues at the Open University to discuss the question: ‘Is there life beyond Earth?’

    The bottom line is that we are now certain that there are many places in our Solar System and around other stars where simple microbial life could exist, of kinds that we know from various settings, both mundane and exotic, on Earth. What we don’t know is whether any life does exist in any of those places. Until we find another example, life on Earth could be just an extremely rare fluke. It could be the only life in the whole Universe. That would be a very sobering thought.

    At the other extreme, it could be that life pops up pretty much everywhere that it can, so there should be microbes everywhere. If that is the case, then surely evolutionary pressures would often lead towards multicellular life and then to intelligent life. But if that is correct – then where is everybody? Why can’t we recognise the signs of great works of astroengineering by more ancient and advanced aliens? Why can’t we pick up their signals?

    The chemicals from which life can be made are available all over the place. Comets, for example, contain a wide variety of organic molecules. They aren’t likely places to find life, but collisions of comets onto planets and their moons should certainly have seeded all the habitable places with the materials from which life could start.

    So where might we find life in our Solar System? Most people think of Mars, and it is certainly well worth looking there. The trouble is that lumps of rock knocked off Mars by asteroid impacts have been found on Earth. It won’t have been one-way traffic. Asteroid impacts on Earth must have showered some bits of Earth-rock onto Mars. Microbes inside a rock could survive a journey in space, and so if we do find life on Mars it will be important to establish whether or not it is related to Earth-life. Only if we find evidence of an independent genesis of life on another body in our Solar System will we be able to conclude that the probability of life starting, given the right conditions, is high.

    A colour image of comet 67/P from Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera. Part of the ‘body’ of the comet is in the foreground. The ‘head’ is in the background, and the landing site where the Philae lander will arrive on 12 November 2014 is out of view on the far side of the ‘head’. (Patrik Tschudin, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr)

    For my money, Mars is not the most likely place to find life anyway. The surface environment is very harsh. The best we might hope for is some slowly-metabolising rock-eating microbes inside the rock. For a more complex ecosystem, we need to look inside oceans. There is almost certainly liquid water below the icy crust of several of the moons of the giant planets – especially Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). These are warm inside because of tidal heating, and the way-sub-zero surface and lack of any atmosphere are irrelevant. Moreover, there is evidence that life on Earth began at ‘hydrothermal vents’ on the ocean floor, where hot, chemically-rich, water seeps or gushes out. Microbes feed on that chemical energy, and more complex organisms graze on the microbes. No sunlight, and no plants are involved. Similar vents seem pretty likely inside these moons – so we have the right chemicals and the right conditions to start life – and to support a complex ecosystem. If there turns out to be no life under Europa’s ice them I think the odds of life being abundant around other stars will lengthen considerably.

    We think that Europa’s ice is mostly more than 10 km thick, so establishing whether or not there is life down there wont be easy. Sometimes the surface cracks apart and slush is squeezed out to form ridges, and these may be the best target for a lander, which might find fossils entombed in the slush.

    Enceladus is smaller and may not have such a rich ocean, but comes with the big advantage of spraying samples of its ocean into space though cracks near its south pole (similar plumes have been suspected at Europa, but not proven). A properly equipped spaceprobe could fly through Enceladus’s eruption plumes and look for chemical or isotopic traces of life without needing to land.

    I’m sure you’ll agree, moons are fascinating!

    Headline image credit: Center of the Milky Way Galaxy, from NASA’S Marshall Space Flight Center. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

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    24. The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

    7277409-MThe Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets written by Emily Bone, illustrated by Fabiano Fiorin is a first primer in astronomy, full of simply explained and rather beautifully illustrated facts about the Solar System, different types of stars and how they group together, and space exploration and observation. Four large flaps fold out (a little like the expanding universe), to reveal further facts and some lavish astronomical vistas.

    Usborne has history when it comes to astronomy books and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize: Last year Usborne’s Look Inside Space (which I reviewed here) won the prize, and in 2011 The Story of Astronomy and Space (which I reviewed here) was shortlisted. So how does The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets compare? Is it an award winner?

    Many Usborne books are characterized by cartoony illustrations, and here, The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets does something rather different and really worthwhile in my opinion: Fiorin’s illustrations do justice to the beauty of space, with the use of vivid watercolours, particularly effective in the section on nebulae.

    usbornestarsbook

    As to the information presented, I have come up against a problem. Whilst I don’t fact-check everything in the non-fiction books I review, I do always check a few “facts”, to get a feel for how the book presents information. Unfortunately with The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets I very quickly came across a few statements which made me slightly concerned: the thickness of Saturn’s rings and the length of Uranus’ day don’t match what is stated on NASA’s website (65 ft thick vs 30-300 ft thick, 17 hours and 54 minutes vs 17 hours and 14 minutes). I know that “facts” are often much more complicated than presented, especially in books for the youngest of readers, and that simplification is sometimes necessary (and that my research skills can always be bettered) but it makes me uneasy when with just a little investigation I can find contradictory information from reliable sources.

    I love the look and feel of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets but I can’t help feeling unsettled by it too; why doesn’t the information I’ve looked up elsewhere match with some of the information presented in the book? Hmm.

    **************

    Inspired by the patterns and colours of the planets in the illustrations, and such photos as the one below, where Jupiter appears in pastel colours because the observation was taken in near-infrared light, we decided to make our own set of planets.

    Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo:  NASA on The Commons, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

    Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo: NASA on The Commons

    We used marbling paint and different sized polystyrene balls to replicate the colours and patterns.

    planets3

    Having created a swirly pattern with a toothpick the girls slowly dipped their “planets” into the paint/water. (In order to hang up the planets to dry, we attached string to them before we dipped them).
    planets4

    The effects were just lovely!

    planets6

    Once dry, we put our planets into orbit in the windowsill:

    planets1

    We shall never have a dull sky at night now.

    planets5

    Whilst marvelling at our marbled planets we listened to:

  • The Monty Python Universe Song
  • The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. ‘Mars’ recently featured in the BBC’s 10 Pieces, a project designed to get primary school aged children really excited about classical music. The BBC created a video to go with the music, which you can view here.
  • For the Planet Pluto by The Music Tapes

  • Other activities that would go well with reading The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets include:

  • Making a scale model of the Solar System down your garden path or along the pavement to school. Here’s how we did it (all measurements included).
  • Watching some of the experiments carried out by Chris Hadfield when he was in the International Space Station. He’s got his own YouTube channel where you can hear him sing (not just the Bowie song) as well as explore many of the amazing things that happen in space.
  • Signing up to find out next time you can send your name into space! Occasionally NASA sends probes into space on which you can have your name inscribed – my girls’ names will be launched into space with Bennu in 2016 – and if you sign up you can find out when the next such opportunity arises.
  • When you read reviews of non-fiction books do you expect some commentary on factual accuracy? When can a book still be worth recommending even if it appears to contain errors? I wrote a review of a non-fiction book for a print publication at the start of this year. The book contained an error (double and triple checked by me), but my review was never published, and in all the other reviews I’ve seen of the book, the error has not been mentioned. What do you think of this? Should errors be overlooked because they can be corrected in future editions?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets about Your Body from the Royal Society.

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets is on this year’s shortlist for the The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. The winner will be announced 17th November.

    4 Comments on The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee, last added: 11/3/2014
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    25. Stardust making homes in space

    Although we rarely stop to think about the origin of the elements of our bodies, we are directly connected to the greater universe. In fact, we are literally made of stardust that was liberated from the interiors of dying stars in gigantic explosions, and then collected to form our Earth as the solar system took shape some 4.5 billion years ago. Until about two decades ago, however, we knew only of our own planetary system so that it was hard to know for certain how planets formed, and what the history of the matter in our bodies was.

    Then, in 1995, the first planet to orbit a distant Sun-like star was discovered. In the 20 years since then, thousands of others have been found. Most planets cannot be detected with our present-day technologies, but estimates based on those that we have observed suggest that almost every star in the sky has at least one extrasolar planet (or exoplanet) orbiting it. That means that there are more than 100 billion planetary systems in our Milky Way Galaxy alone! Imagine that: astronomers have gone from knowing of 1 planetary system to some 100 billion, in the same decades in which human genome scientists sequenced the 6 billion base-pairs that lie at the foundation of our bodies. How many of these planetary systems could potentially support life, and would that life use a similar code?

    Exoplanets are much too far away to be actually imaged, and they are way too faint to be directly observed next to the bright glow of the stars they orbit. Therefore, the first exoplanet discoveries were made through the gravitational tug on their central star during their orbits. This pull moves the star slightly back and forth. Only relatively heavy, close-in planets can be detected that way, using the repeating Doppler shifts of their central star’s light from red to blue and back. Another way to find planets is to measure how they block the light of their central star if they happen to cross in front of it as seen from Earth. If they are seen to do this twice or more, the temporary dimmings of their star’s light can disclose the planet’s size and distance to its star (basically using the local “year” – the time needed to orbit its star – for these calculations).  If both the gravitational tug and the dimming profile can be measured, then even the mass of the planet can be estimated. Size and mass together give an average density from which, in turn, knowledge of the chemical composition of that planet comes within reach.

    stars
    Star trails, by MLazarevski. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

    With the discoveries of so many planets, we have realized that an astonishing diversity exists: hot Jupiter-sized planets that orbit closer to their star than Mercury orbits the Sun, quasi-Earth-sized planets that may have rain showers of molten iron or glass, frozen planets around faintly-glowing red dwarf stars, and possibly some billions of Earth-sized planets at distances from their host stars where liquid water could exist on the surface, possibly supporting life in a form that we might recognize if we saw it.

    Guided by these recent observations, mega-computers programmed with the laws of physics give us insight into how these exo-worlds are formed, from their initial dusty disks to the eventual complement of star-orbiting planets. We can image the disks directly by focusing on the faint infrared glow of their gas and dust that is warmed by their proximity to their star. We cannot, however, directly see these far-away planets, at least not yet. But now, for the first time, we can at least see what forming planets do to the gas and dust around them in the process of becoming a mature heavenly body.

    A new observatory, called ALMA, working with microwaves that lie even beyond the infrared color range, has been built in the dry Atacama desert in Chili. ALMA was pointed at a young star, hundreds of light years away. Its image of that target star, LH Tauri, not only shows the star itself and the disk around it, but also a series of dark rings that are most likely created as the newly forming planets pull in the gas and dust around them. The image is of stunning quality: it shows details down to a resolution equivalent to the width of a finger seen at a distance of 50 km (30 miles).

    At the distance of LH Tauri, even that stunning imaging capability means that we can see structures only if these are larger than about the distance of the Sun out to Jupiter, so there is a long way yet to go before we see anything like the planet directly. But we will observe more of these juvenile planetary systems just past the phase of their birth. And images like that give us a glimpse of what happened in our own planetary system over 4.5 billion years ago, before the planets were fully formed, pulling in the gases and dust that we now live on, and that ultimately made their way to the cycles of our own planet, to constitute all living beings on Earth.

    What a stunning revolution: from being part of the only planetary system we knew of, we have been put among billions and billions of neighbors. We remember Galileo Galilei for showing us that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the solar system. Will our society remember the names of those who proved that billions of planets exist all over the Galaxy?

    Headline image credit: Star shower, by [email protected] CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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