20 Recommended Astronomy Books

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Image Credit: Susan Q Yin

There are thousands of internet resources that serve the interests of the majority of most amateur astronomers most of the time. However, some types of information can only be obtained from old-style paper books. It is a rare amateur astronomer that does not own a collection of books, from science fiction to reference works on stellar distances. And if truth be told, no serious amateur stargazer can operate without paper books of this kind.

In the list below, I therefore present you with 20 astronomy books no amateur astronomer can afford to be without. So in chronological order, here’s a personal choice of the best astronomy books that will add considerable value to your career as an amateur astronomer.

Published: 1980
Author: Carl Sagan

Although much of the science in Cosmos is now somewhat dated, the sheer beauty of Sagan’s prose makes this classic by one of the keenest scientific minds of modern times, a must have volume in any astronomer’s book collection. Sagan was one of the most successful popularisers of science of all time. He was also one of the most successful professional astronomers of all time, and we can all still learn from his keen insights into the workings of the Universe.

Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy
Published: 1994
Author: Kip Thorne

Thorne has made a career out of exploring and studying issues that seem better suited to science fiction than serious scientific debate. However, the issues covered in this work are presented in easy to understand language. This makes mind-bending topics, such as the possibility of time travel, travel at faster than light speed, and the use of wormholes to travel between galaxies, accessible to non-scientists. Thorne also presents the people who proposed these ideas, and explains the evolution of the basic precepts behind their concepts in plain language. Nonetheless, this book is not light bed-time reading, but for all that, nobody needs a PhD to understand it either.

Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension
Published: 1994
Author: Michio Kaku

If you are looking for answers on why the Universe is the way it is, this book will explain some of the possible reasons in a way that will make sense. Even to those readers that are wholly unfamiliar with cosmology. Although the book is written in non-technical language, the reader is left with the sense that the four universal forces, electro-magnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, are only manifestations of a higher form of space-time. The author explains the possibility of parallel universes, wormholes, and time travel in a fun and engaging manner. He even tells you how to create a wormhole in the comfort of your own home with only a pressure cooker and an ice cube. All you need to figure out is how to heat the ice cube to 1032 Kelvins. Have fun!

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Published: 1995
Authors: Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

When it comes to disinformation, misinformation, and the dissemination of bad science, astronomy is no different from any other scientific discipline. The internet abounds in examples of distortions, half-truths and outright scientific fraud. This is why we all owe Sagan and Druyan a debt of gratitude. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan and his wife take a close look at alien sightings, alien abductions, and other “supernatural” phenomena, which they thoroughly debunk by applying the scientific method in their investigation of these matters. The book includes a “baloney detection kit” to help the reader make sense of reports of these phenomena, and the hysteria that sometimes result. This is a must-read for students of the para-normal, and the following quote from the book explains why:

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must
Published: 1996
Author: Robert Zubrin

The colonisation of Mars has long been a favourite topic among science-fiction writers. However, this work by Zubrin places the idea of settling on Mars firmly into the realm of science-fact. The author explains how basic building material (and water) could be manufactured from Martian soil, and how fuel for rockets and land vehicles could be “pulled” from the Martian atmosphere. Also included is a section on how to make Mars habitable to humans by transforming the atmosphere. Although this book is nearly two decades old, it is still an informative, if not authoritative source on how to make the colonisation of Mars a reality.

The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy
Published: 1999
Editor: Michael Hoskin

No list of recommended astronomy books can be complete without the inclusion of at least one volume on the history of astronomy. This particular volume covers the history of astronomy from prehistory to modern times. It also includes a survey of modern knowledge about astrophysics and astronomy in general, and although the book makes no attempt to cover EVERYTHING, the editor has managed to cover the most important concepts and themes. All the major discoveries and advances are included. This makes this volume essential reading both for students and amateurs who require a historical perspective on their respective careers and studies.

A Walk through the Heavens: A Guide to Stars and Constellations and their Legends (3rd Edition)
Published: 2004
Author: Milton D. Heifetz

Aimed at the rank novice stargazer, this essential guide makes it easy to identify the northern constellations. All maps are simplified with all distracting or confusing objects removed but not to the extent that a particular constellation cannot be recognised against the bigger back-ground sky. No equipment is required to use this guide- only normal vision and good seeing conditions, which makes this a particularly valuable aid to beginners.

Handbook of CCD Astronomy (2nd Edition)
Published: 2006
Author: Steve B. Howell

Charge-Coupled Devices (CCDs) are the state-of-the-art detector in many fields of observational science. Updated to include all of the latest developments in CCDs, this second edition of the Handbook of CCD Astronomy is a concise and accessible reference on all practical aspects of using CCDs. Starting with their electronic workings, it discusses their basic characteristics and then gives methods and examples of how to determine these values. The book focuses on the use of CCDs in professional observational astronomy. Advanced amateur astronomers, and researchers in physics, chemistry, medical imaging, and remote sensing will also find it very valuable. Tables of useful and hard-to-find data, key practical equations, and new exercises round off the astronomy book and ensure that it provides an ideal introduction to the practical use of CCDs for graduate students, and a handy reference for more experienced users.

Digital SLR Astrophotography
Published: 2007
Author: Michael A. Covington

Unlike other texts that deal with astrophotography, this work focuses on the use of DSLR cameras to the exclusion of all else. The author provides step-by-step guides on the selection of equipment, and how to get the most out it. Also covered are instructions for both simple and complex projects, as well as technical issues and problems to keep in mind, and even image processing techniques. So if CCD imaging is not your thing, this work is still essential reading for understanding the DSLR camera, and how to use it best effect.

To Measure the Sky: An Introduction to Observational Astronomy
Published: 2010
Author: Frederick R. Chromey

This is not a book for beginners; it is aimed at undergraduate astronomy students, but advanced amateurs will find a wealth of information on the principles of light detection and capture, optics as it pertains to telescopes, the workings of coordinate systems, data analysis, and astronomical measurement. The author also provides the theoretical underpinnings of observational practices and the basic physics to connect theory and practice. To help the digestive process, this astronomy book also includes more than 120 exercises and problems that can be solved with the material in the text.

Astronomical Applications of Astrometry: Ten Years of Exploitation of the Hipparcos Satellite Data
Published: 2012
Author: Michael Perryman

The average amateur stargazer may not be overly concerned with stellar distances. Nevertheless, this comprehensive guide of stellar distances and proper motions of objects as determined by the Hipparcos satellite is essential for observers who wish to have a better understanding of the movement of objects in the Universe. The work doesn’t only explain the state of understanding before the advent of Hipparcos. It also provides summaries of the results of current measurements, among which are exact luminosities for use during stellar modelling, and comparison of observed luminosities. This astronomy book also includes the fully revised Hipparcos and Tycho catalogues, including their annexes and latest updates.

A Student’s Guide to the Mathematics of Astronomy
Published: 2013
Authors: Daniel Fleisch, Julia Kregenow

All amateur astronomers run into the mathematics of astronomy at some point in their careers. In this work, the author subsequently explains the solar system, the Milky Way, and the entire known Universe in easy-to-digest mathematical language. Although the book is aimed at non-scientists, it nevertheless requires a basic mathematical proficiency. The mathematical problem surrounding stars and star formation, light wave propagation, gravity, and black holes are explained. But to make it easier to follow the maths, the author has provided more than 150 exercises and “homework assignments. The book can be used in conjunction with a supporting website that offers supporting materials, interactive solutions, and even video podcasts that deal with the most important concepts in each chapter in the book.

Herschel 400 Observing Guide
Published: 2013
Author: Steve O’Meara

This astronomy book contains a list of 400 of the more than 2,500 objects discovered by William Herschel and his sister, Caroline. The list includes 231 galaxies, 107 open clusters, 33 globular clusters, 20 planetary nebulae, 2 halves of a single planetary nebula and 7 bright nebulae, and the author takes the reader on a tour of all 400 objects. The tour is divided into sections, with objects listed so that every object is viewed at the best possible time. This is an essential for northern observers wishing to fine-tune their observing skills.

Observing Variable Stars, Novae and Supernovae
Published: 2014
Authors: Gerald North, Nick James

Variable stars and other objects that vary in brightness are among the most fascinating astronomical bodies to study. However, this guide is not recommended for beginners. This is despite claims by the author that it is suitable for amateurs of all levels. Intermediate and advance amateurs, on the other hand, can gain greatly by the comprehensive descriptions and background astro-physics that explain the behaviour of variable objects. There is also detailed information on required equipment, and how to determine the brightness of objects by visual means, as well as by CCD photometry. Moreover, the book includes a CD-ROM with several hundred light curves, and more than 600 printable finder charts. The end result is an especially valuable resource for intermediate and advanced amateurs engaged in studying variable objects.

Cosmic Catastrophes: Exploding Stars, Black Holes, and Mapping the Universe (2nd Edition)
Published: 2014
Author: J. Craig Wheeler

This fully updated edition explores the intellectual threads and musing that have led to some of the greatest discoveries in astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics. This edition includes discussions on the theory of black holes, and why they manifest in the way they do. Also included is an overview of the physics of the previous century, in which the author explores the conflicts between relativity and quantum theory, and how the two fields might be reconciled in the present century. The material in this astronomy book is not recommended for newcomers to cosmology; this work is better suited to undergraduate students, or readers with more than a passing acquaintance to cosmology and quantum theory.

An Amateur’s Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens
Published: 2014
Author: Ian Morison

This is essential reading for practitioners of astrophotography wishing to bridge the divide between the general literature that available for beginners and hobbyists, and the specialised subject-specific texts for advanced amateurs. The author is an accomplished astrophotographer and educator. The result is a highly digestible work that not explains equipment choices, but also provides extensive discussions on the pros and cons of each. The author fully discuses and explains the techniques involved in all types of astro-imaging. He also provides step-by-step guides on the use of DSLR’s and webcams for solar, planetary, and lunar imaging. As well as guides on the use of cooled CCD devices for deep sky imaging.

A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way
Published: 2014
Author: Edward Emerson Barnard

Although this astronomy book was first published in 1927 in two volumes, it is still one of the most authoritative explorations of The Milky Way ever undertaken. This edition however, combines the two volumes, but Barnard’s original text is retained. This edition also includes high resolution reproductions of the original photographic plates and charts, arranged so that both plate and corresponding chart can be viewed together. Much of Barnard’s work has since been superseded by modern images. Nevertheless, this is a must have publication for readers who are interested in the history of the early days of modern astronomy.

Spooky Action at a Distance
Published: 2015
Author: George Musser

It was once thought that objects cannot affect one another unless they are close enough to one another to be mutually affected by each other’s gravity or other properties. However, this notion is no longer valid, and it has perhaps never been. Einstein once referred to the ability of objects to affect one another even though they are separated by vast distances as “spooky action at a distance”, and especially with regard to the way particles behave in the world of quantum mechanics. This phenomenon is also known as “nonlocality”. And in this work the author attempts to explain how it affects modern scientific studies and investigations. One such issue involves the view that matter “sucked” into black holes can exist both inside the black hole and on its surface. So if grappling with the paradoxes of the Universe interests you, this astronomy book is required reading.

The New Cosmos: Answering Astronomy’s Big Questions
Published: 2015
Author: David J. Eicher

The past decade or so has seen an unprecedented number of new astronomical discoveries. However, while some questions are now resolved, there remain a large number that are still looking for answers. In this seminal astronomy book, the author tackles some of the most vexing questions in astronomy and cosmology head-on. He also uses the latest information and discoveries to solve them.

The author deals with questions such as why Venus is the way it is, the nature of dark energy and dark matter, the Big Bang Theory, and many others in a fun and engaging manner. But always in the light of the latest scientific discoveries. The book includes color plates, diagrams, and maps to explain each question in dedicated chapters that traces the history of the problem, before the answer, or explanation is given. This is a must-read for advanced amateurs.

Stargazing Basics: Getting Started in Recreational Astronomy (2nd Edition)
Published: 2015
Author: Paul E. Kinzer

This fully updated edition answers all the questions that newcomers to the hobby of astronomy face. Issues such as which is best- a telescope or binoculars, how to use optical instruments, and what is visible thorough amateur instruments, are all covered. The author also explains basic observing techniques, and many objects are reproduced as they appear in amateur equipment.

Also covered in simple language is a tour of the solar system, and all technical terms as they relate to observing these heavenly bodies. Apart from offering practical advice on how to purchase basic observing equipment, the author also supplies a comprehensive list of resources for further reading. This book should be the first in the collection of any newcomer to observational astronomy as a hobby.

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1 Comment

  1. What a great well-thought-of list! Specially because it caters for both newbies and seasoned stargazers alike.

    Thanks a lot!

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