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A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters)

By Giles Sparrow

12 July 2021


Each chapter in ‘A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters)’ covers one celestial object, including where and when during the year to locate it, why the object is important to our understanding of the universe, the history of its discovery and the effort that went into unravelling its secrets.

Most, if not all, of the objects described will be familiar to anyone with an interest in astronomy. Some are obvious choices, like Betelgeuse and Sirius B, while the importance of others, like Polaris and Mizar, are not obvious  – at least not to me – until reading on. The selection becomes even more impressive as all of them, except for S2, are either visible to the naked eye or through a small telescope, meaning that after reading a chapter it is possible to go out and observe the actual object – location and time of year permitting.

The book does a very good job at covering our present understanding of the universe using non-technical language. What I found as impressive is that the author also gives a comprehensive history of the field of astronomy itself, including important contributions from unrecognised female pioneers and scientists from non-Western cultures.

Two minor issues that I had at the beginning were the lack of photos and the use of hand-drawn star-charts. I realised later, however, that the charts really do a good job as aids for locating the objects in question because of their clarity and exclusion of irrelevant details. A big issue that I have, however, is the lack of an index, which made for a fiddly process of trying to remember where I had come across the names of people and objects that recur throughout the text and which I found interesting for cross-checking. The book also inexplicably lacks an author biography: I had to find Giles Sparrow’s website to ascertain his credentials. He studied Astronomy and Science Communication at UCL and Imperial College and has therefore a thorough understanding of his subject.

Whatever the book’s issues, I would still recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in astronomy as it was a very rewarding read; the colloquial language makes it an excellent gift to budding young amateur astronomers. I wish I had had such a great overview as this during my amateur astronomer days so many years ago now.

Reviewed by Lars Backstrom

A HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE IN 21 STARS (AND 3 IMPOSTORS) by Giles Sparrow, 2020. Published by: Welbeck 335 pp (hbk) ISBN: 9781787394650 List Price: £12.99. W: www.welbeckpublishing.com