The best astrophysics books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about astrophysics and why they recommend each book.

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The Expanding Universe

By Robert W. Smith,

Book cover of The Expanding Universe: Astronomy's 'Great Debate', 1900-1931

Thanks to spectrum analysis, the development of improved photographic capabilities, and the construction of powerful new mountaintop telescopes, early 20th century astronomers were able to ask and seek answers to an entirely new range of intriguing questions about the nature and structure of the celestial realm. But the inability to resolve all nebulae into stars left them with a nagging mystery to untangle:  are these luminous clouds relatively nearby embryonic solar systems, or extremely distant aggregates of countless stars? 

In The Expanding Universe, author Robert Smith ably transforms archival material into a lively narrative of the dramatic twists and turns -- the disappointing failures, dead-ends, careless errors, contentious controversies, welcome surprises, and successes -- of the decades-long international effort to find answers to this perplexing quandary.


Who am I?

Barbara J. Becker received her PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University. Until her retirement, she taught at the University of California at Irvine and now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a leading authority on astronomer William Huggins. Her research interests include the role of the amateur in the development of nineteenth-century professional astronomy, the redefining of disciplinary boundaries in the face of new knowledge and new practice, and the role of controversy in shaping the substance and structure of scientific knowledge. She is the author of numerous journal articles and editor of Selected Correspondence of William Huggins (2 volumes).


I wrote...

Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

By Barbara J. Becker,

Book cover of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

What is my book about?

Unravelling Starlight is the first scholarly biography of William Huggins (1824-1910), a retired London silk merchant and self-taught amateur astronomer who was celebrated in his own lifetime as the "father" of astrophysics. 

Based on new evidence on Huggins's life and career gleaned from his unpublished notebooks and correspondence, Unravelling Starlight provides a fresh look at his pioneering contributions to the development of astrophysics and sheds important new light on his collaborative work with his wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915).  In 2015, it was awarded the prestigious Donald E. Osterbrock Prize by the History of Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

By W. David Woods,

Book cover of How Apollo Flew to the Moon

You’ll find a thousand books that tell the Apollo story, describing the missions and the astronauts and the drama, and A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin is most people’s gateway drug. It’s a great book. But being on the technical side myself–and needing all those messy in-depth technical details to get my own book right–I found Woods’ book perfect for delving deep into the scientific and technical ingenuity of the missions, of all the procedures and maneuvers from launch through splashdown, and many other fascinating aspects that other books leave out. If you’ve ever read an Apollo history and wondered: “But how did that really work, how long did it take, what was the process, why did they do it that way?” or even just “Uh, they did what, now?” then this is totally the book for you.


Who am I?

Hot Moon, my new alternate-Apollo thriller set entirely on and around the Moon, is my labor of love and the book I always wanted to write. I grew up in Yorkshire, England, far from Cape Kennedy and Mission Control, but was always obsessed with the Apollo Program and with astronomy and space in general. This passion (nudged along by shows like Doctor Who, UFO, and Star Trek) eventually led to degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from Oxford. I now live in the US and work for NASA studying black holes and other bizarre celestial objects.


I wrote...

Hot Moon

By Alan Smale,

Book cover of Hot Moon

What is my book about?

Apollo 32, commanded by career astronaut Vivian Carter, docks at NASA’s Columbia space station in lunar orbit en route to its main mission: exploring the volcanic Marius Hills region of the Moon. Vivian is caught in the crossfire as four Soviet craft appear without warning to assault the orbiting station. In an unplanned and desperate move, Vivian spacewalks through hard vacuum back to her Lunar Module and crew, and escapes right before the station falls into Soviet hands.

Their original mission scrubbed, Vivian and her crew are redirected to land at Hadley Base, a NASA scientific outpost with a crew of eighteen. But soon Hadley, too, will come under Soviet attack, forcing its unarmed astronauts to daring acts of ingenuity and improvisation. 

The Disordered Cosmos

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein,

Book cover of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred

This Harvard-trained cosmologist takes us on a journey into the universe, from colliding black holes to neutrons and protons “faking it” as elementary particles. If you ever wondered why the universe has more matter than antimatter, and what is dark matter made of, this book is for you. And physics is about more than theories; it’s about people doing physics. Black lives matter, and Black lives are the stuff of stars. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares her exploration of a universe that is “bigger than the bad things that are happening to us.” Along the way, we gain new clues to the fate of our galaxies full of stars.


Who am I?

As a child in New England, I used to look up to the trees around my home and the stars beyond. The trees caught my gaze by day, their branches twisting into the blue sky. I imagined myself turning upside-down, so the branches actually plunged into blue water, like the tree-islands of my novel A Door into Ocean. By night I imagined falling off the Earth into the dark well of stars. My vision of stars ultimately morphed into the multicolored microbes of Brain Plague. The books on my list expanded my view of trees and stars into many dimensions. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


I wrote...

The Highest Frontier

By Joan Slonczewski,

Book cover of The Highest Frontier

What is my book about?

A Cuban-American president’s granddaughter finds an alien ultraphyte crawling up a tree. The ultraphytes are blamed for Earth’s floods and fires. Jenny Kennedy escapes it all and takes the anthrax-powered space elevator up to Frontera College, a satellite amidst the high frontier of stars. Virtual worlds teach biology and colonial history, financed by a Native American casino. Jenny meets her neurodivergent roommate and starts research on intelligent plants. Yet even out in space, students cannot escape Earth’s disasters and invaders. Only Jenny and her roommate’s research might save Earth from itself.

The Revolt on Venus

By Carey Rockwell,

Book cover of The Revolt on Venus

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet remains my favorite young adult series. What’s not to like? Fights ending in fellowship, villains, and perils defeated, all in a dazzling 24th-century world of atomic spaceflight, electric wristwatches, high-speed slidewalks, hard-nosed Solar Guard officers with hearts of gold, and – remember this was written 70 years ago – brilliant women who are full professors of astrophysics at Space Academy (I’ll always love you, Dr. Joan Dale). Oh yes, and the Paralo-Ray: a weapon that immobilizes but does not kill. Of the eight Corbett books, The Revolt on Venus is the best: tense and thrilling, full of great characters, and politically astute.


Who am I?

I had a rotten childhood. Stuck in bed with asthma, I couldn’t do sports; but I could roam space and time with books, especially science fiction. Yet when I tried to re-read my beloved sci-fi titles as an adult, I got a shock. The books with sound science had terrible writing; the well-written books were full of scientific schlock. I realized that if I wanted sci-fi that was both technically astute and rewarding to read, I’d have to write it myself. And so I did.


I wrote...

Sun's Strong Immortality

By William Illsey Atkinson,

Book cover of Sun's Strong Immortality

What is my book about?

A tiny faction of humans hidden in distant space has achieved the ultimate technology: Immortality without decay. But when the centuries-old First of this splinter group do not share power, what happens to the young? And what happens to the New Earth when a virulent Old Earth learns of its existence and starts to track it down? In this new series I look at the extremes of human mind, heart, and invention in clear and riveting prose. Here is great hard-science fiction -- literate, exciting, technically rigorous, and unputdownable.

The End of Everything

By Katie Mack,

Book cover of The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)

Who doesn’t love to think about how the universe—so big, so old already—will ultimately end? Reading the book encouraged me to look at the universe as its own thing, of which I and all of Earth, were tiny parts, and tiny parts that would end long before the cosmos itself would. Katie Mack explores what five such conclusions might look like, getting everybody a little more comfortable with the idea that every story has an ending, even if we don’t know what this one looks like.


Who am I?

I grew up intending to become an astronaut. The cosmos always felt within reach of my backyard, from where I could watch the Space Shuttle launch. As I grew up, I began to realize that the space our rockets reached was exceedingly close compared to the rest of the universe. And I became obsessed with what else was out there. I went on to study radio astronomy, fascinated by the parts of the cosmos that our senses can’t detect. After that, I became a science journalist, writing about how space influences Earth and vice versa.


I wrote...

Astronomical Mindfulness: Your Cosmic Guide to Reconnecting with the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets

By Christopher G. de Pree, Sarah Scoles,

Book cover of Astronomical Mindfulness: Your Cosmic Guide to Reconnecting with the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets

What is my book about?

Back when humans lived in communal caves and tribal encampments, we told stories about the stars. When we started sailing, we used these same pinpricks of light to estimate our own location. When we began planting, we relied on the constellations and the Sun to plant and sustain crops. crops. Yet today, most modern humans have lost this deep connection to the cosmos that was once central to our daily lives. To help us reestablish our vital connection to the heavens, Astronomical Mindfulness guides readers in using the power of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to deepen knowledge of the solar system and foster a renewed sense of presence in the universe. Filled with engaging exercises, the shows the fundamental ways our planet moves through the solar system and how these motions determine our perception of time and place.

Mapping the Spectrum

By Klaus Hentschel,

Book cover of Mapping the Spectrum: Techniques of Visual Representation in Research and Teaching

The proverbial scientist at work conjures the image of a solitary investigator bent over a workbench cluttered with arcane instruments nestled among reams of scribbled notes just waiting to be transformed into creative answers to pressing questions about the natural world. The image's simplicity belies the complexity of the process it purports to represent. Adding descriptions of the what, how, and why of scientific inquiry, observation, and analysis still misses a crucial element that makes the improvement, dissemination, and acceptance of new knowledge possible, namely the active behind-the-scenes collaboration between scientists and the illustrators, photographers, printers, and other artisans who use visual representation to shape and successfully communicate that knowledge. 

Mapping the Spectrum is not just an exhaustive and illuminating history of spectrum analysis.  In it, author Klaus Hentschel brilliantly exposes the essential role of visual culture in bringing this all-important tool of modern science to useful life.  He has…


Who am I?

Barbara J. Becker received her PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University. Until her retirement, she taught at the University of California at Irvine and now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a leading authority on astronomer William Huggins. Her research interests include the role of the amateur in the development of nineteenth-century professional astronomy, the redefining of disciplinary boundaries in the face of new knowledge and new practice, and the role of controversy in shaping the substance and structure of scientific knowledge. She is the author of numerous journal articles and editor of Selected Correspondence of William Huggins (2 volumes).


I wrote...

Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

By Barbara J. Becker,

Book cover of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

What is my book about?

Unravelling Starlight is the first scholarly biography of William Huggins (1824-1910), a retired London silk merchant and self-taught amateur astronomer who was celebrated in his own lifetime as the "father" of astrophysics. 

Based on new evidence on Huggins's life and career gleaned from his unpublished notebooks and correspondence, Unravelling Starlight provides a fresh look at his pioneering contributions to the development of astrophysics and sheds important new light on his collaborative work with his wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915).  In 2015, it was awarded the prestigious Donald E. Osterbrock Prize by the History of Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Minding the Heavens

By Leila Belkora,

Book cover of Minding the Heavens: The Story of Our Discovery of the Milky Way

Young people today casually speak of "galaxies far, far away".  They seem to have an intuitive, even if fanciful, understanding that, like science fiction aliens, they and their fellow humans also reside in a galaxy of their own. A mere century ago, such a belief was a matter of highly debatable conjecture. How did earthbound observers learn that the Sun is just one of the hundreds of billions of stars bound gravitationally in a vast spiral-shaped galaxy? 

As Minding the Heavens ably demonstrates, the answer to that question is a long and fascinating story, one that author Leila Belkora vividly recounts using chapter-length biographies of seven astronomers from the 18th to the 20th centuries.  With help from their assistants and family as well as communication with contemporaries, these curiosity-driven individuals endeavored to determine the form and structure of the celestial realm and learn the true nature of the mysterious hazy…


Who am I?

Barbara J. Becker received her PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University. Until her retirement, she taught at the University of California at Irvine and now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a leading authority on astronomer William Huggins. Her research interests include the role of the amateur in the development of nineteenth-century professional astronomy, the redefining of disciplinary boundaries in the face of new knowledge and new practice, and the role of controversy in shaping the substance and structure of scientific knowledge. She is the author of numerous journal articles and editor of Selected Correspondence of William Huggins (2 volumes).


I wrote...

Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

By Barbara J. Becker,

Book cover of Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy

What is my book about?

Unravelling Starlight is the first scholarly biography of William Huggins (1824-1910), a retired London silk merchant and self-taught amateur astronomer who was celebrated in his own lifetime as the "father" of astrophysics. 

Based on new evidence on Huggins's life and career gleaned from his unpublished notebooks and correspondence, Unravelling Starlight provides a fresh look at his pioneering contributions to the development of astrophysics and sheds important new light on his collaborative work with his wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915).  In 2015, it was awarded the prestigious Donald E. Osterbrock Prize by the History of Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

The Glass Universe

By Dava Sobel,

Book cover of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

This is a very readable account of a group of women working on a project at Harvard University’s observatory in the late nineteenth century. The project involved studying glass-plate negatives of the sky and in doing so learning more about the night sky, the composition of stars, and their evolution. Through the story of these women, Sobel shows the extent to which the university supported and nurtured them, it also brilliantly brings to life these women using their own words to show their awareness of certain injustices. This book is a great way into to understanding science as it properly is: more often than not collaborative and collective rather than the isolating work of a stereotypical lone genius. It is also a great story, engagingly told.


Who am I?

Formerly curator of astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, I am an occasional writer and researcher and a now full-time primary school teacher in the north of England.  My popular books include The Stargazer’s Guide and The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel; I have also contributed to various academic publications, including a paper on William Herschel for Notes & Records of the Royal Society which won their 2014 Essay Award.


I wrote...

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

By Emily Winterburn,

Book cover of The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

What is my book about?

Caroline Herschel was a quiet, unassuming, always accommodating eighteenth-century singer turned astronomer. She discovered several comets, nebulae, and star clusters and contributed in various ways to a family project that allowed her brother, William Herschel to become an astronomer so prolific and inventive he is sometimes termed the father of modern astrophysics. Curiously, much of the work that made Caroline her own name in astronomy took place in a 10-year period entirely missing from her journal.

My book looks at those 10 years, in part to celebrate that work which made her the first woman ever published in the Royal Society and a respected name across Europe, but also to understand why she decided to destroy the journal evidencing of her thoughts and feelings during that same period.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience

By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

This book, by one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, offers a personal insight into understanding and appreciating the vastness of the Cosmos. It’s a book that spans so much and paints the most accurate picture I’ve read of how we might fit into the Universe.  


Who am I?

I am a film director and producer, specialising in science and history. I write books between making films. 


I wrote...

Where Once We Stood: Stories of The Apollo Astronauts Who Walked On The Moon

By Christopher Riley,

Book cover of Where Once We Stood: Stories of The Apollo Astronauts Who Walked On The Moon

What is my book about?

My most recent book – Where Once We Stood, was written for the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing. Using the actual words spoken by the first humans to reach the surface of the Moon, it captures the first-hand accounts of an extraordinary chapter in our history. Interwoven with a unique series of illustrations by artist Martin Impey, it offers a rare insight into what it really felt like to live and work on another world; something that those who’d experienced it often found hard to convey. 

The Physics of Filter Coffee

By Jonathan Gagne,

Book cover of The Physics of Filter Coffee

Coffee preparation is often accused of being a bit nerdy, but what if you lean into that? This book is a deep exploration of coffee brewing from a passionate astrophysicist. With a rigorous approach to coffee you can learn new and surprising things, and this book is having rippling effects on coffee shops and coffee lovers worldwide.


Who am I?

I’ve been working in coffee for nearly 20 years, and teaching people about coffee for most of that. I love sharing how interesting, diverse, and fun the world of coffee is, and I want people to enjoy and value the coffee they drink a little more. It is a passion and a career that’s taken me around the world, and continues to reinforce the idea that just a little effort or interest in your morning coffee has surprisingly large rewards. The books on this list inspired my own passion for coffee and I hope they do the same for you.


I wrote...

How To Make The Best Coffee At Home

By James Hoffmann,

Book cover of How To Make The Best Coffee At Home

What is my book about?

More and more people are brewing coffee at home, and this book covers everything you need to know to make that coffee better. The goal is to understand the most important aspects of brewing, so it can be simpler and easier rather than more complicated.

Covering everything from how to buy coffee, how to better taste coffee, right through how to brew it in a wide array of different brewers, this is a concise but complete book that will make your mornings that bit more delightful.

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