Stuart Clark’s top 10 approachable astronomy books

‘Looking at the stars is a good way to provoke a primal reaction’ … Using a telescope to observe the night sky.

Stuart Clark is the award-winning author of The Sun Kings, 2007. In his new book, The Big Questions: The Universe, he tackles the 20 biggest questions driving modern astronomy, including Are We Made From Stardust? Are There Other Intelligent Beings? Is There Cosmological Evidence for God? His website is

Stuart is the former editor of Astronomy Now. He is also a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a former vice chair of the Association of British Science Writers and in 2000, the Independent placed him alongside Stephen Hawking and the Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, as one of the “stars” of British astrophysics teaching.  He is now senior editor for the European Space Agency and is a contributor to New Scientist and the Economist. 

“Looking at the stars is a good way to provoke a primal reaction. You may experience wonder or awe, maybe even fear about how small you really are. No matter what you feel, the stars have the power to move us and have done so for thousands of years. Understanding the celestial objects and our place within them has been a passion of mine for my whole life. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t consumed with curiosity about the universe. These books span the entire history of mankind’s fascination with space. All of them capture the fascination of astronomy and the human stories behind this most noble of sciences.”

1. The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

Part science, part travel book. Ananthaswamy searches for cosmological truth by visiting the often remote observatories and laboratories studying the universe. Ultimately, this story is an enchanting exploration of the author’s quest to understand not just a little more about the universe, but a little more about his own place within it.

2. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel

The most dramatic retelling of the Galileo story for a generation, and a rather tragic tale to boot. Sobel’s memorable prose relies on letters between Galileo and his oldest daughter, a nun, to shine new light on the iconic astronomer. A masterful blend of history and astronomy.

3. The Book Nobody Read by Owen Gingerich

Gingerich’s compelling narrative illuminates his quest to explore the cultural reception of Copernicus’s revolutionary idea that the Earth orbited the sun and not vice versa. Gingerich also relates the difficulties of being an American researcher during the cold war, knowing that his quarry lay behind the iron curtain.

4. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos by Dennis Overbye

This extended piece of top-class journalism captures astronomy as it is really practised in the corridors of academia and the lecture halls of conferences. Personal rivalries and personalities have as much to do with “progress” as having the right answer. Sprawling, complex and epic, it is also a page-turner.

5. Project Orion by George Dyson

How far will man go to reach the stars? Back in the 1950s, idealism was running high and a group of scientists and engineers gathered at The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. Their goal was to harness nuclear bombs to launch manned spacecraft. Utter madness but beautifully recounted by George Dyson, whose father was one of the misguided idealists.

6. Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough

Manned spaceflight rather than astronomy, but a vivid behind-the-scenes portrayal of America’s participation in Russia’s Mir space station. It strips away the PR gloss and builds a factual story that reads likes a near-future thriller. Gripping, with some genuinely jaw-dropping moments of drama.

7. The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler

Dense and detailed, this is a book you may have to work at, but there are rich rewards for anyone who stays the course. It also grows better with each re-reading. Koestler weaves the greatest history of astronomy up to Newton ever written.

8. Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife

Forget matter and energy, space and time, Seife argues that the most fundamental property of the universe is the information it contains. Until we accept this, we are stymied from further progress, rather like a baby playing with the box instead of the gift inside. Provocative and interesting, it challenges you to think differently.

9. The Very First Light by John C Mather and John Boslough

A thrilling tale of big science within Nasa, this is the story behind the mission that discovered the “seeds” of today’s galaxies in the faint glow of the very first light left over from the creation of the universe.

10. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip S Thorne

A fantastic tale of the consequences of relativity rather than the development of it. Black holes are predicted by relativity and are the weirdest things imaginable, so weird that astronomers tried for decades to wish them away. Even today, they still don’t know what they are. Cracking story, cracking science.


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