The universe through the eyes of an astronomer or astrophysicist is a fascinating place — and a good book can give you a glimpse of that world without requiring years of study. Here are the Space.com writers’ and editors’ recommendations of astronomy and astrophysics books that will thrill, puzzle, intrigue and blow your mind.
(We are constantly reading new and classic space books to find our favorite takes on the universe. Our recently-read books in all categories can be found at Best Space Books. You can see our ongoing Space Books coverage here.)
What We’re Reading:
‘Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution’ (Penguin Press, 2019)
By Lee Smolin
Although many believe that the quantum-mechanics revolution of the 1920s is settled science, Lee Smolin wants to disrupt that assumption. Smolin, a theoretical physicist based at the Perimeter Institute in Toronto, argues that quantum mechanics is incomplete. The standard quantum model only allows us to know the position or trajectory of a subatomic particle — not both at the same time. Smolin has spent his career looking to “complete” quantum physics in a way that allows us to know both pieces of information. Smolin’s very engaging new book, “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution,” offers this unique perspective honed through four decades at the forefront of theoretical physics. ~ Marcus Banks
Read a Q&A with Smolin about the new book and the state of quantum physics here.
‘Finding Our Place in the Universe’ (MIT Press, 2019)
By Hélène Courtois
In “Finding Our Place in the Universe,” French astrophysicist Helene Courtois describes the invigorating quest to discover the Milky Way’s home. In 2014 Courtois was part of a research team that discovered the galactic supercluster which contains the Milky Way, which they named Laniakea. This means “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian.
In this engaging and fast paced book, Courtois describes her own journey in astrophysics and highlights the key contributions of numerous female astrophysicists. The reader is right there with her as Courtois travels to the world’s leading observatories in pursuit of Laniakea, and it’s easy to see why the challenge of discovering our galaxy’s home became so seductive. Readers who want them will learn all the scientific and technical details needed to understand the discovery of Laniakea, but it’s also possible to enjoy this book as a pure tale of adventure. ~Marcus Banks
Read a Q&A with Courtois about her book and the hunt for Laniakea here.
‘Out There’ (Grand Central Publishing, 2018)
By Mike Wall
With “Out There: A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious),” Space.com senior writer Mike Wall gets at the most pressing questions of our place in the universe, who else is out there, what they might be like and why we haven’t heard from them yet. Wall draws on up-to-date science to answer speculative questions accurately and with good humor, accompanied by Karl Tate’s entertaining line drawings.
“Out There” dramatizes the search for life and how we might react to its discovery, and it also explores what a long-term human presence off Earth could look like and whether we will ever make it there. The book offers quick dips into the most interesting aspects of space science, but it never feels shallow. ~Sarah Lewin
‘Catching Stardust’ (Science/Space, 2018)
By Natalie Starkey
In her debut book “Catching Stardust,” space scientist Natalie Starkey breaks down misconceptions about comets and asteroids while delving into some of the reasons why it is so vital that we study them. Using the Rosetta and Stardust missions to frame both how and why we study these cosmic objects, Starkey reflects on the history of our human understanding of comets and asteroids.
Starkey starts with earlier civilizations, that often interpreted comets to be fiery omens in the sky, and leads to present day, where there is an ever-evolving line between what constitutes a comet versus an asteroid. She doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, either — she tackles the topics of asteroid mining and asteroid collision with factuality, openness, and ease. And, while some of the terms and scientific concepts in the book might seem intimidating at first, Starkey does an expert job laying out explanations in a way that is uniquely accessible. ~Chelsea Gohd
‘A Brief History of Time’ (Bantam, 1988)
By Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking explains the universe. In this best-seller, the renowned physicist breaks down black holes, space and time, the theory of general relativity and much more, and makes it accessible to those of us who aren’t rocket scientists. The book is a great primer for anyone who wants to learn more about the origins of the universe and where it’s all heading. ~Live Science Staff (Best Science Books)
Hawking’s death at age 76 was announced March 14, 2018; read more about his life and legacy here.
“A Briefer History of Time,” published first in 2005 in collaboration with Leonard Mlodinow, offers a more accessible update on the science of the first book.
‘The Planet Factory’ (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2017)
By Elizabeth Tasker
In her new book “The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth,” astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker explores what scientists currently know about the mysterious distant planets beyond the solar system. The refreshing tone of her narrative takes readers on a journey through old techniques for spotting exoplanets (some of which were quite dangerous), the oblong orbits of some alien planets, and why the “habitable zone” of a planet does little to support life if too much water drowns out it’s rock cycles. The style is good for beginners, and the chapters are full of humorous explanations to grasp this important field of modern astronomy. ~Doris Salazar
Read about a talk by the author here: Pac-Man’ and ‘Mario Kart’: How to Understand Planet Formation
‘See It with a Small Telescope’ (Ulysses, 2017)
By Will Kalif
“See It with a Small Telescope” is a fun read for those just getting familiar with their new telescope. Will Kalif, who runs the website Telescope Nerd, guides readers to dozens of interesting objects in the sky. Whether you enjoy looking at planets, star clusters, the moon, nebulas or something else, there are a range of fun things to seek out using this book.
The night sky is a very big place to explore, but Kalif narrows it down to what a beginning telescopic observer will enjoy. His star charts are handy guides to help you find your way. He even includes a section on astrophotography if you’re interested in taking pictures, including options with unspecialized equipment. Since the text of the book is written at a junior high level, your teenage kids likely will enjoy the book as well. ~Elizabeth Howell
‘100 Things to See in the Night Sky’ (Adams Media, 2017)
By Dean Regas
Whether you’re an amateur astronomer, casual stargazer or anything in between, “100 Things to See in the Night Sky” is your one-stop shop for information on where, when and how to spot some of the brightest and most easily recognizable sights in the sky. Written by Dean Regas, an astronomer and public outreach educator at the Cincinnati Observatory in Ohio, the book breaks down everything you need to know to stargaze like a pro.
Beginners can use this book as an introduction to stargazing, while more experienced readers will find the book to be a useful field guide that can serve as a reference for locating and identifying stars, constellations, meteor showers, eclipses and even satellites. The book focuses on “naked-eye” objects, so you don’t need telescopes, binoculars or any other equipment to utilize this handy skywatching guide. ~Hanneke Weitering
Read an interview with the author here.
‘The Zoomable Universe’ (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
By Caleb Scharf, illustrated by Ron Miller and 5W Infographics
In “The Zoomable Universe,” astrophysicst Caleb Scharf takes readers from the size of the observable universe step-by-step down to the shortest theoretical measurable length. Along the way, Scharf and the book’s illustrator, Ron Miller, explore the formation of the universe, our galaxy and Earth, the makeup of life and quantum physics, and the complexity that develops when you look beyond the surface at any scale.
The large, colorful book has a lot of ground to cover, but it delves into enough detail to spark readers’ curiosity, and additional graphics by 5W Infographics pack more information into less space. As it speeds through orders of magnitude, from the largest to the smallest, it stops in lots of fascinating corners of the universe along the way. ~Sarah Lewin
Read an interview with Scharf on the book and the biggest changes coming to our understanding of physics here.
‘Making Contact’ (Pegasus Books, 2017)
By Sarah Scoles
Fifty years ago, only a handful of scientists were hunting for signals from other civilizations as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In “Making Contact,” science writer Sarah Scoles explores the biography of one of the most influential SETI scientists, Jill Tarter. Scoles follows a mostly linear path through Tarter’s life, occasionally breaking into the present to bridge connections. While the biography traces the history of SETI, its primary focus is on Tarter: her childhood relationships with her parents that helped drive her, her education as the sole woman in her engineering class in the 1960s, and her struggle with scientists and bureaucrats who didn’t think hunting for alien signals was worth the time, money or resources. But Tarter continued to fight, helping to found a private agency that would survive government changes, hunting for private donors to look beyond this world and helping move the search for intelligent life from the fringes into mainstream science. ~Nola Taylor Redd
Read an interview with Scoles about the book and Tarter’s life here.
‘Planet Hunters’ (Reaktion Books, 2017)
By Lucas Ellerbroek, translated by Andy Brown
“Planet Hunters” takes readers through the history of the search for worlds around other suns — from heretical belief to science fiction flight of fancy to one of the fastest-growing fields of astronomical research. Author Lucas Ellerbroek highlights the passion of exoplanet researchers as they learn about the countless planets circling other stars.
“I really want to bring across the message that science is something not to be read purely in an encyclopedia, because encyclopedias change, and science is a dynamic enterprise done by humans,” Ellerbroek says of the book. ~Sarah Lewin
Read an interview with the author here.
‘Sun Moon Earth’ (Basic Books, 2016)
By Tyler Nordgren
Throughout history, solar eclipses have transformed from terrifying omens to the subject of scientific study. In “Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets,” astronomer-artist Tyler Nordgren traces the natural history of eclipses and how they have inspired eclipse chasers to travel the world and witness the natural phenomenon.
Nordgren’s narrative also details how observations of total solar eclipses have contributed to scientific discoveries about the sun, moon and Earth’s place in the universe throughout history. ~ Samantha Mathewson
Read an interview with the book’s author here.
‘Exoplanets’ (Smithsonian Books, 2017)
By Michael Summers and James Trefil
The search for planets beyond Earth’s solar system has revealed countless surprises, including the existence of strange and unexpected worlds that astronomers would have never imagined existed only a few decades ago. A new book titled “Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets and the New Search for Life Beyond Our Solar System” (Smithsonian Books, 2017) explores the history of exoplanet research, illustrates the many different types of planets that have been discovered to date and discusses how astronomers plan to further study these newfound alien worlds. ~Samantha Mathewson
‘Asteroid Hunters’ (Simon & Schuster, 2017)
By Carrie Nugent
The solar system is a wild place, and even Earth’s immediate neighborhood is much more chaotic than maps would suggest — researchers discover more than 100 near-Earth asteroids every month. A new book by Carrie Nugent, an asteroid researcher from Caltech, goes through how we find asteroids and near-Earth objects and what we would do if one was heading toward us. “Asteriod Hunters” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) is a quick overview of the growing field, giving a feel for how science is done and where we’ll have to pick up speed to protect Earth — plus, a visceral understanding of exactly how much risk is out there. ~Sarah Lewin
Read an interview with Nugent on the book and the latest in asteroid hunting here.
‘Earth in Human Hands’ (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
By David Grinspoon
Over the past century, humankind’s influence over our environment has increased dramatically. Astrobiologist and planetary scientist David Grinspoon argues that our species is arriving at a point that lifeforms across the galaxy may face — become self-sustaining or perish. In “Earth in Human Hands,” Grinspoon explores the ways that, for good or bad, humans have seized control of the planet. The choice is whether we do so mindlessly, or whether we act in a responsible, considerate manner. Such a dilemma may be common to all life, and the most successful, long-lasting civilizations in the galaxy may live on planets they have engineered to be stable over extensive periods of time, making them more difficult to identify than rapidly-expanding societies. ~Nola Redd
You can read an interview with Grinspoon (and watch video clips of him discussing the book with Space.com) here.
NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe (Firefly Books, 2016)
by Terence Dickinson
“NightWatch” is the perfect introduction to astronomy and stargazing. It has been the top-selling stargazing guide for over 20 years. Now in its revised fourth edition, the book contains everything you need to know about what’s up in the sky through the year 2025. The bookre chapter is dedicated to stargazing technology, like binoculars and telescopes. “NightWatch” assumes that the reader has no prior experience with astronomy. It is clear and concise enough for any beginner to understand, but is pac is filled with star charts, tables with information about stargazing events and incredible photos of space. An entiked with information that even the most experienced stargazers will find comes in handy. ~Hanneke Weitering
Watch our gift guide video about the book here.
‘The Glass Universe’ (Viking, 2016)
By Dava Sobel
“The Glass Universe” highlights the remarkable story of how a group of women, called “computers,” shaped the field of astronomy during the mid-19th century — when women were not typically employed outside the home. At that time, astronomers relied on grounded telescopes to record nightly observations of the stars. Women computers at the Harvard College Ovesrvatory were then tasked with interpreting those observations, captured on photographic glass plates. Author Dava Sobel follows the stories of several women, which she collected from old diaries, letters and published observatory log books. Based on their calculations, these women — including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne — made some of the most fundamental discoveries of our universe. ~Samantha Mathewson
Read a Q&A with Sobel about the book here.
‘Facts From Space!’ (Adams Media, 2016)
By Dean Regas
For any space fan looking to learn crazy, fun facts about the universe, “Facts From Space!” is a great place to start. Dean Regas, an astronomer and public outreach educator for the Cincinnati Observatory, has gathered together all the cool, quirky and mind-blowing facts you probably never knew you’d want to know about the universe. Regas chronicles everything from the sometimes silly adventures of space travelers in Earth’s orbit and on the moon to black holes, galaxies and nebulas far away in deep space, listing all the best facts about the universe in a way that is fun and easy to read. Readers of all ages can understand and appreciate the contents of this book. No attention span is necessary to enjoy it — flip to any page and you’ll find a handful of short facts and cartoons that make learning about space a simple and entertaining experience. ~Hanneke Weitering
Space.com spoke with Dean Regas about making “Facts From Space!” exciting and accessible here.
‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
By George Musser
Space and time are weird. Human understanding of the universe relies on space and time separating things — one object cannot affect another unless they’re touching, or unless object A sends an intermediary out to touch object B, like a photon bouncing off of something and into your eye. All very straightforward, and good for scientific investigation.
But the problem is, there are hints that nature doesn’t actually work that way. This new book by science writer George Musser delves into the different ways that scientists are grappling with this concept of “nonlocality” — what Albert Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance” in the quantum mechanics world. Particles that are entangled affect each other instantaneously even when separated; paradoxical black holes can be explained if the stuff sucked in exists inside their gravitational pull and on the surface at the same time. Musser explores the history of humans grappling with nonlocality and what these strange effects are teaching quantum mechanics researchers, astronomers, cosmologists and more about how the universe works — and while doing so, showing the messy, nonlinear and fascinating way researchers push forward to understand the physical world. ~Sarah Lewin
‘Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy’ (W. W. Norton, 1994)
By Kip Thorne
Theoretical astrophysicist Kip Thorne has spent his career exploring topics that once seemed relegated to science fiction, such as whether time travel is possible, and how humans could potentially travel from galaxy to galaxy via wormholes. In “Black Holes and Time Warps,” Thorne provides an introduction to these and other mind-bending topics, at a level appropriate for nonscientists. The book is not a light read — it goes deeper into the science than many pop physics books — but Thorne is the perfect person to take readers on this journey: He’s a patient and entertaining teacher, and he never loses the thread of the story. On top of the science lessons, Thorne introduces a cast of characters who pushed these fields forward, and chronicles the fight by American and Russian physicists to continue scientific collaboration during the Cold War. (Twenty years after its publication, Thorne talked with Space.com about the new science he would add to the book.) ~Calla Cofield
‘Cosmos’ (Random House, 1980)
By Carl Sagan
“Cosmos,” by famed astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, is a deep dive into the history of science, philosophy and the universe. The book acts as a partner with Sagan’s beloved 1980s TV show, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” This book is a beautiful glimpse inside one of the greatest scientific minds in history. While some of it may seem dated, the book still stands up as one of the best popular science books ever written, and the language is just beautiful. ~Miriam Kramer
‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark’ (Ballantine Books/Random House, 1995)
By Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Sagan was one of the 20th century’s greatest ambassadors and popularizers of science, and he doesn’t disappoint in “The Demon-Haunted World.” The book explains to laypeople just what science is, and how researchers use the process of scientific inquiry to understand the universe around us. There’s a lot of debunking in “The Demon-Haunted World” — of alien encounters, channeling and other paranormal experiences — and Sagan even provides readers a “baloney detection kit” to help them navigate a confusing and chaotic world. Like other Sagan works, this one is a fun and engaging read, but a great deal of ambition lurks beneath the fluid prose, as this quote from the book reveals: “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.” ~Mike Wall
‘Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension’ (Oxford University Press, 1994)
By Michio Kaku
Our brains evolved to comprehend the world around us on a local and accessible scale. We’re really not equipped to understand the universe as a 10-dimensional entity — and yet “Hyperspace” explains this revolutionary idea in such a lucid and engaging way that it makes a good deal of sense. By the time you’re done reading this book, you’ll have a pretty solid grasp of why Kaku and other scientists think the basic forces in our universe — electromagnetism, gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces — may actually just be vibrations in higher-dimensional space. And it’s an extremely fun read, too, with excursions into such sexy topics as parallel universes, time travel and wormholes. For example, did you know that you might be able to create a wormhole in your own kitchen using just an ice cube and a pressure cooker? All you have to do is figure out a way to heat the ice cube up to a temperature of 1032 degrees Kelvin. ~Mike Wall
We’re adding to these lists all the time; check back for what’s new in astronomy and astrophysics!
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