Book Reviews


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Doomsday Asteroid

[image of book cover]Doomsday Asteroid: Can We Survive?
by Donald W. Cox and James H. Chestek
Prometheus Books, 1996
hardcover, 337pp., illus.
ISBN 1-57392-066-5

Over thirty years ago, Donald Cox and Dandridge Cole wrote Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, one of the first modern books to discuss in detail the asteroids and the possibilities they hold for a spacefaring civilization. Since then our knowledge of the asteroids has grown tremendously, as well as our appreciate of the threat near-Earth asteroids pose to the Earth. It's this latter threat that Cox and James Chestek examine in detail in Doomsday Asteroid.
     Despite the sensational-sounding title of the book, the text is a serious, if sometimes erroneous, look at the possibilities of asteroid and comet impacts on Earth and what can be done to predict and prevent them. They use this as a base to build on further discussions of exploring the asteroids and using them as sources of raw materials for space-based industries and turning asteroids into "inside-out" worlds for human colonization.
     Cox and Chestek often take on the conventional wisdom regarding how to deal with the threat. From their use of the acronym COTE (Celestial, or Cosmic, Object Threatening Earth, depending on where in the book you find it) to identify near-Earth asteroids and comets to their criticism of some of the studies undertaken to develop ways to identify and deflect threatening objects, they have their own strong opinions on how it should be done.
     Unfortunately, though, their arguments often don't stand up. They argue that the only serious way to look for all possible 'threatening objects' is to deploy telescopes in space away from the Earth. While technically correct that these telescopes could be more efficient that Earth-based ones and finding new objects, they fail to mention that the cost of these telescopes would be many times more than telescopes of the same size based on Earth -- a not-insignificant factor given the tiny amounts of money spent today on asteroid and comet searches.
     The text could have been helped by a little fact-checking and close reading: on more than one occasion they claim one thing in part of the text and then accept a different explanation elsewhere, without mentioning the contradiction. This is especially true when they discuss comet Swift-Tuttle: on one page they mention the "fairly good odds" it will hit Earth in 2126, then (correctly) mention two pages later that the odds of impact are less than 1 in 10,000.
     These problems aside, Doomsday Asteroid is a good comprehensive look at the threats these objects are to the Earth. They also do a good job showing the limitless possibilities for developing these asteroids in space, a combination not usually found in other books. While I still like John Lewis's Rain of Iron and Ice and Duncan Steel's Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets, this book is a welcome addition to the second tier of texts about the dangers of the solar system.

A Pro-Space Guide

[image of book cover]The Case for Space: Who Benefits from Explorations from the Last Frontier?
by Paul S. Hardersen
ATL Press Science Publishers, 1996
softcover, 191pp., illus.
ISBN 1-882360-47-8

Convincing people of the importance of space exploration has been an uphill battle for many years. People are often unaware of the benefits, direct and indirect, of space exploration, but seem acutely aware of the cost of space efforts, often overrepresenting NASA's budget by an order of magnitude! It's up to those who, in one way or another, see the promise of space exploration to educate and convince others that space is important. Paul Hardersen's book The Case for Space goes a long way towards providing a concise guidebook and sourcebook for those people.
     The focus of this book is not to directly convince those skeptical of space exploration, but to empower those who already have an interest by providing them with information and arguments in favor of space, and point out avenues of activity these new activists can pursue to spread the word. Hardersen looks at several areas, from Earth-based applications of space technology (including the inevitable discussion of spinoffs) to the costs of space travel and the resources available outside Earth. A final section of the book identifies ways to get involved in space activism and organizations one can join.
     The information in the book is largely accurate, although in some places not updated (the discovery of possible ancient life on Mars is mentioned, but the section about the DC-X does not mention the accident which destroyed the vehicle a week before the Mars life announcement.) The writing style in places seems a little too pedantic, and some sections of the book appear to be nothing more than reprinted press releases and articles from Space News. The list of pro-space organizations at the end of the book has some notable omissions, too: while the NSS and the Planetary Society are mentioned, other organizations like SEDS and the Space Frontier Foundation are not on the list. The book could also have used a better grammatical and typographical check: there are some grammar mistakes and poor typesetting (using double dashes instead of em dashes, for example) in the book.
     While this book won't likely convince those opposed to or uncommitted about space exploration, The Case for Space does serve a purpose as a source of information for those interested in the subject and in search of more information, either for themselves or to try and convince others. If you've been looking for a simple, concise argument for space exploration, this book will likely meet your needs.

A Young Adults' Guide to Planetology

[image of book cover]Planetology: Comparing Other Worlds to Our Own
by Fred Schaaf
Franklin Watts, 1996
softcover, 128pp., illus.
ISBN 0-531-15828-4

Studies of the solar system, both from ground-based telescope and robotic spacecraft, have shown us the diversity of worlds in the solar system. They have also allowed us to better understand our own world and our place in the solar system and the universe. Noted writer Fred Schaaf addresses these points for an audience of young adults in the book Planetology.
     Schaaf discusses some of the history of our studies of the solar system, then looks at specific regions of study, like atmospheres, surfaces, and magnetic fields. While discussing distant planets and moons, Schaaf ties these discoveries into our understanding or our home world. A look at Venus's greenhouse effect is then compared to the possible warming of the Earth's atmosphere from man-made releases of greenhouse gases. The lack of water on the surface of Venus and Mars is then compared to the abundant water on Earth, and so on.
     This book is targeted at the "young adult" audience: old enough to know the basics about the solar system (such as the number of planets) but not necessarily knowing a lot about the solar system, or the connections other worlds have with Earth. While adults might not appreciate the writing style of the book, Planetology is a good introduction to the field for any budding young astronomer.

Quick Takes on Two Books

[image of book cover]Societies in Space
by Alvin Rudoff
Peter Lang, 1996
hardcover, 210pp.
ISBN 0-8204-3078-1

Far too often books about space exploration focus on the technical details, such as the costs of getting into orbit, the technologies needed to open the space frontier, and the scientific wonders of the cosmos that await our discovery. Far less work is devoted to how people will work, live, and govern themselves in space. That's why Alvin Rudoff's Societies in Space looked like a promising study of these areas. Unfortunately, it falls far short of expectations.
     "The major purpose of Societies in Space is to encourage the involvement of the Social Sciences in the construction of the High Frontier," Rudoff writes. Accuracy isn't apparently required for the social sciences, though, as this book is rife with errors. Some are just embarrassing -- substituting the work "Skylab" where "Spacelab" and, in one case, "Salyut" was intended -- and some explanations are just hard to swallow ("Gravity comes with an atmosphere" ?) This book did not get the editing attention it needed to be a better book.
     The book moves around, going from the physiological and psychological aspects of living in space to the effects of contact with extraterrestrial intelligences to how an orbiting community might govern itself. Had Dr. Rudoff focused on some of these ideas and explored them in greater detail, and had better editing, this might have been a much more useful book. However, Societies in Space is not work the hefty price tag for such a slender, inaccurate book.

[image of book cover]Discovering Space: A Partnership in Education
by the Jordan (Utah) School District
Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1996
softcover (spiral-bound), 225pp. (approx.), illus.
ISBN 0-7872-1798-0

Discovering Space is a sourcebook for teachers and students to use to prepare classroom exercises related to space. The exercises in the book are broken down into four areas: history, living and working in space, communications, and global ethics and concerns. A variety of exercises are available in each section, ranging in grade levels from kindergarten to 12th grade.
     While it's not possible to truly evaluate the quality of this book without using at least some of these exercises in the classroom, there s a wide range of exercises which can instill in students an interest in space while at the same time teaching them about separate topics. A resource section in the back of the book provides listings of additional sources of information from NASA and private enterprise. For any teacher or parent interested in using space as a vehicle to enhance children's education, Discovering Space could be an excellent guide to classroom activities.

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