Under Alien Skies

Books

Have you ever wanted to visit space? Reading public astronomer Philip Plait’s Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Universe is the next best thing. Beginning with that closest rock, the moon, Plait describes at length what it would feel like to land on the lunar surface, from the bizarre sensation of shuffle-walking because of the difference in gravity to the pesky bits of crushed-up rock, called regolith, that would inevitably dust one’s spacesuit. His vivid imagination combines with his deep and specific scientific knowledge to engage—and educate—lay readers. 

As the book progresses, Plait moves from the familiar—the moon, Mars, Saturn and even Pluto—to wilder reaches and more conceptual destinations. My favorite chapter imagines a spaceship landing on the surface of the Star Wars planet Tatooine; the movie clip of Luke Skywalker standing at dusk beneath a sky with two suns provides the basis for Plait’s enthusiastic explanation of what conditions could lead to a sunset that looks, well, exactly like that. This was a moment, he points out, when Hollywood actually got space right (unlike their interpretations of black holes, which he explores in a later chapter).

Plait could dance circles around what most of us know about space. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and has even professionally analyzed images from the Hubble Space Telescope. And yet, through the imaginative premise of this book, Plait finds ways to talk about how an everyday person would experience space: what Saturn’s rings would look like up close, how the landscape of Mars might stir associations with the barren, red scenery of the American West, why some stars appear blue and some appear red, what it might feel like to land on an asteroid. By grounding his prose in bodily sensations and then explaining why he believes something would look or feel a certain way, Plait doesn’t just look up at the sky and dream but really envisions what it would be like to spend a summer among the stars.

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