J. Richard Gott *73 (Denise Applewhite)

New book: Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective, by J. Richard Gott *73 and Robert J. Vanderbei (National Geographic)

The authors: A professor of astrophysics at Princeton who studies cosmology and the theory of general relativity, Gott has been interested in astronomy since he was 8 years old. “What I found most intriguing were the sizes of the planets and the sun,” writes Gott, whose map of the visible universe is reproduced in Sizing Up the Universe. Vanderbei is chairman of Princeton’s Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering and an amateur astronomer who takes pictures of objects in the sky outside his home using telescopes, digital cameras, and a computer. “His photographs of astronomical objects taken right from his backyard rival the best images taken from observatories,” notes Gott.

The book: Written for armchair astronomers and people who study the sky alike, Sizing Up the Universe aims to help readers get a sense of the size and shape of the universe and the objects within it – stars, planets, galaxies — as well as the distance between objects and how far away they are from Earth. Fun facts are sprinkled throughout the book — for example: “Among the terrestrial planets in our solar system, Venus is the closest to the size of Earth — only about 5 percent smaller.” Highlighted by stunning photographs — many taken by Vanderbei, including the Western Veil Nebula, known as the Witch’s Broom — the book provides a visual guide to what’s out in space, describes how astronomers measure objects and distances, and chronicles recent discoveries.


Robert J. Vanderbei (Courtesy National Geographic )

From the book: “One of the exciting things about astronomy is just how big those things in the sky really are. The sun is so big that a million Earths could fit inside. And yet there are stars much larger than the sun. The distances between the stars and between the galaxies are truly humbling. Our tiny Earth is just a speck in the vastness of space. It tends to put things into perspective.”


Reviews: A critic for New Scientist called the book “an absolute delight. On one page we find a picture of the United States juxtaposed with, and completely dwarfed by, a sunspot. On another, the Grand Canyon is superimposed on Mars’ Valle Marineris. Our canyon is smaller than even the tributaries of the great Martian canyon, a great crack in the surface snaking a third of the way around the Red Planet.” Paul Gilster of the Tau Zero Foundation called the book an “indescribably lovely volume. … If you know someone who is interested in astronomy but still at the novice level, my hunch is that this book could awaken a lifelong passion.”