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A Map of the Universe

Fenella Saunders

Click to Enlarge ImageAs one of the few human beings ever to stand on the Moon, astronaut Buzz Aldrin views that body not as an abstract location but a real place. As he writes in the foreword to James Trefil's Space Atlas (National Geographic Books, 2012, $50), looking at maps of the Moon is, for him, “a little like retracing a vacation on the map that was carried along.” Right from the beginning, Space Atlas emphasizes the importance of maps in understanding and exploring our universe—an inclination that is not surprising in a book published by National Geographic. The book is laid out as a reference volume. It offers plenty of maps, yes, but also statistics and informational graphics as well as short sections of text that readers can jump to without reading the entire book at once. For instance, a sidebar on Saturn points out that the density of the planet is so low that, if it were possible to find a body of water large enough, the entire planet would float. The image of Mercury shown above is accompanied by a brief essay along with diagrams of the planet’s structure.

The topics work outward from our location, starting with the planets in our Solar System and moving on to galaxies and then the larger universe. (There’s a bit of a side trip along the way, in the form of a discussion about the origin of life, presumably as an introduction to the following section, on exoplanets.) Maps remain some of the most mind-boggling aspects of the book. A particularly stunning one attempts to display the entire universe and our size in relation to it. Another diagram relates a commonly seen image of the cosmic microwave background radiation of the universe to the Big Bang, giving the image the context it so often lacks. And an illustration of the classification of galaxies by shape makes clear the vastness and variety of our universe.

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