The best books about exploration

4 authors have picked their favorite books about exploration and why they recommend each book.

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Lost Islands

By Henry Stommel,

Book cover of Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from Nautical Charts

All sorts of islands have been spotted from afar and printed on our maps, only to be revisited years later and found to be ephemeral or just plain delusions. This book is a historical survey of late nineteenth-century British and American attempts to verify islands and establish a final, accurate map of the world. It was an impossible task back then and it is even more challenging today, for islands are coming and going with increasing speed.


Who am I?

I’m a geography professor and travel writer. I’ve been writing books about the planet’s hidden and overlooked corners for some years now. In a world where people often imagine that everywhere is known, mapped and probably under the gaze of a security camera, that might seem a tall order. In fact, the world is teeming with places that remain, resolutely, stubbornly, or just weirdly and literally, ‘off the map’. And you don’t have to go far to find them; they can often be found under your feet or just round the corner.


I wrote...

Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age of Islands

By Alastair Bonnett,

Book cover of Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age of Islands

What is my book about?

My latest book is The Age of Islands: In Search of New and Disappearing Islands (published in the USA and Canada as Elsewhere: A Journey into Our Age of Islands). I wrote it because something very peculiar is happening to islands. At the same time as they are disappearing because of sea-level rise, new ones are popping up. New islands are being designed and sculptured in fancy, outlandish shapes off numerous shores. I travelled the planet to find them. In China, Panama, and UEA I found extraordinary new maritime exclaves for the wealthy. I also found new islands being built as dumping grounds:  repositories for the things we don’t want onshore, like airports and toxic waste. You can also read about my adventures trying to get to a new volcanic island in Tonga. It didn’t go well! I draw up maps of all these places, as well as some of the islands that are still on the drawing board and will be sprouting out of the sea over the coming decades.

Curiosity

By Markus Motum,

Book cover of Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover

This nonfiction picture book takes an unusual approach in presenting the story of the Curiosity rover. Curiosity tells the reader about her extraordinary journey to Mars. I was fascinated and enlightened reading details about the construction, launch, and landing of this complex robot. The illustrator’s earthy palette compliments the subject matter. The last illustration of the tiny rover on the red planet left me in awe. It reminded me of standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and gazing at a scene so vast I couldn’t possibly take it all in. Check out the rover’s path here!


Who am I?

I’m fascinated by robots. As a former computer programmer, systems analyst, and consultant, I’ve had an interest in technology since my first programming class in high school. I’ve been to robotics labs in Boston, Massachusetts, and Lausanne, Switzerland. My husband is a mechanical/software engineer, so STEM is a big part of our lives. In addition to Robo-Motion, I’m the author of a number of Minecraft books with STEM and coding sidebars. I’ve also published many magazine articles, one of which was the inspiration for this book. I wrote about the CRAM cockroach robot for the March 2017 issue of MUSE.


I wrote...

Robo-Motion: Robots That Move Like Animals

By Linda Zajac,

Book cover of Robo-Motion: Robots That Move Like Animals

What is my book about?

Animals skitter, scuttle, grip, and glide and so do robots. In this nonfiction picture book about biomimicry, a photograph of each animal is paired with a fascinating robot that mimics its motion. Details about each robot’s purpose convey how robots can benefit society. This STEM title includes back matter, a glossary, and information about biomimicry. Through Robo-Motion for Research, I’m donating a portion of the proceeds to support research on diseases and medical conditions that affect children.

Life With Hubble

By David S. Leckrone,

Book cover of Life With Hubble: An Insider's View of the World’s Most Famous Telescope

Do you recall when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with supposedly the world’s most perfect mirror, but proved out of focus, a billion-dollar “techno-turkey?” Despite widespread doubts (including mine), it was repaired in space and became arguably the most powerful telescope ever, making extraordinary discoveries about the birth of stars, the age of the universe, what happens when comets smash into Jupiter, and much more. Behind the scenes there were engineering quandaries, inter-agency disputes, and MacGyvering repairs by astronauts. Dave Leckrone, the ultimate insider who worked on Hubble for 33 years, ending as its top Project Scientist, knows what really happened, the “story behind the story,” aided by what must be a photographic memory, incessant notetaking, and one guesses, closely-held Hubble X-files. He tells all of it here.


Who am I?

I’ve studied space for 60+ years, including spotting Sputnik from atop 30 Rock for Operation Moonwatch; monitoring an exploding star for a PhD at University of Michigan, leading the Remotely Controlled Telescope project at Kitt Peak National Observatory, hunting pulsars from Arizona and Chile, and helping develop scientific instruments for the Hubble Space Telescope. I worked for 5 years at Kitt Peak and 35 years for NASA. As Press Officer (now retired) of the American Astronomical Society, I organized press conferences on many notable cosmic discoveries. Minor Planet 9768 was named Stephenmaran for me, but I haven’t seen it yet. What I have spotted are five exceptional books on space.  Enjoy!


I wrote...

Astronomy for Dummies

By Stephen P. Maran,

Book cover of Astronomy for Dummies

What is my book about?

Do you know the difference between a red giant and a white dwarf? From asteroids to black holes, this easy-to-understand guide takes you on a grand tour of the universe. Featuring updated star maps, charts, and an insert with gorgeous full-color photographs, Astronomy For Dummies provides an easy-to-follow introduction to the night sky. Plus, this new edition also gives you the latest theories, explanations, and insights into the basic workings of the universe.

This New Ocean

By William E. Burrows,

Book cover of This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age

The current era of exploration began after World War II, announced by the International Geophysical Year. With Antarctica as a pivot, exploration moved down to the world’s ocean depths and out to interplanetary space. Space got the most attention – it was visible and had a literature that ice and abyss couldn’t match.

With vigor, clarity, and a lively tempo, This New Ocean narrates the space race in both its manned and robotic expressions, its American and Soviet versions, its technology, and its politics. Burrows is an enthusiast, but not an ideologue or a blinkered astrofuturist. A good survey and introduction, This New Ocean makes a lively read.


Who am I?

My 15 seasons at Grand Canyon inspired me to understand its story of revelation, which led to a fascination with the history of exploration overall.  This has resulted in a series of books about explorers, places explored, and a conceptual scaffolding by which to understand it all: a geologist of the American West (Grove Karl Gilbert); Antarctica (The Ice); revisiting the Rim with better conceptual gear, How the Canyon Became Grand; and using its mission as a narrative spine, Voyager: Exploration, Space, and Third Great Age of DiscoveryThe grand sweep deserved a grand summary, so I’ve ended with The Great Ages of Discovery.


I wrote...

The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned about a Wider World

By Stephen J. Pyne,

Book cover of The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned about a Wider World

What is my book about?

Exploration by Western civilization - a kind of quest narrative – has proceeded in three great waves, each with its crest and a trough. Each had a geography of special interest, an alignment with larger cultural movements, a critical geopolitical rivalry, and a grand gesture that captured what the age most exemplifies.

The Great Ages narrates this larger arc, moving from the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas to the world ocean, to the crossing of all the Earth’s continents, and finally, after World War II, pivoting from Antarctica, probing into the deep oceans and interplanetary space. More than a compilation of adventure stories, Great Ages uses the tradition of exploration to discover better the character of its sustaining civilization.

Space Chronicles

By Neil Degrasse Tyson,

Book cover of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

During his speech at the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai, Neil deGrasse Tyson confessed that his original title for the book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier was Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. The publisher rejected this title. I would have purchased this book either way, but the original title is on the mark. Tyson is one of my greatest sources of inspiration because he is so clear-eyed about practical challenges in space travel: from the physical and biological to the political and philosophical. Space Chronicles is one of many fine entry points into his brilliant mind.


Who am I?

I am an author and freelance health and science writer with expertise is in health, nutrition, medicine, environmental sciences, physics, and astronomy. I try to address all these topics with healthy skepticism, realism, and a sense of humanity and humor. I am the author of three books: Spacefarers (2020), Food At Work (2005), and Bad Medicine (2003). I also have written more than 500 newspaper, magazine, and web articles for periodicals such as The Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine. My upcoming book concerns the engineering of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope (MIT Press, 2022).


I wrote...

Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

By Christopher Wanjek,

Book cover of Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

What is my book about?

More than 50 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, humans still have not settled on the Moon, let alone done anything remotely interesting in low-earth orbit aside from raising ants on the International Space Station and doing zero-gravity flips for school children. Why? Because space activities are difficult, expensive, and nearly pointless. Yet this is getting easier and cheaper. The book Spacefarers explains the profound challenges and practical limitations of space habitation as we search for a solid reason not merely to visit space but to live on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. A must-read before you start your migration to the stars.

The Descent (Jove)

By Jeff Long,

Book cover of The Descent (Jove)

I love this book. It’s ambitious and brutal. It’s about the discovery of a civilization—savage, violent—that exists deep within the earth. Humanity, in this novel, comes face to face with what we really are. Religion is a theme, too, as many regard this new world as Hell. And when the world above attempts to quell this fierce race, using military force, it initially comes off second best… and then, the beasts of the Inferno start to ascend. It’s big and bold, brilliantly researched. It inspires me to be authentic, and work at getting facts right.


Who am I?

I like action. I like raw. I like violence. Not carrying it out, I hasten to add, but reading and watching it, fiction, of course. Real-world violence distresses me (unless it's consenting, like combat sports). I get deeply upset when I hear about the cruelties humans inflict on each other, and on animals; I'm oddly sensitive to that as a horror writer. But I think that writing about (fictional) violence and reading or watching it, helps me confront my fears. The books I mention do that. They make me uncomfortable, nervous, uneasy, but the twists and turns of the plot give me highs as well as lows. For me, they help me become a better writer.


I wrote...

Skarlet

By Thomas Emson,

Book cover of Skarlet

What is my book about?

Fear grips London as dozens of clubbers die after taking a sinister new drug. But that's only the beginning. 48 hours later, the dead clubbers wake up—and it's open season on the living, who are butchered for blood. Soon, London gives a name to its terror: Vampires.

Jake Lawton, bitter and betrayed after the Iraq War, now finds himself fighting another battle. He joins forces with the journalist who brought about his downfall and the dealer tricked into distributing the drug. But the vampire plague unleashed in London is nothing to what lurks beneath the streets. Waiting to be fed... Waiting to be resurrected... Waiting to reign again over a city of human slaves...

The Once and Future Moon

By Paul D. Spudis,

Book cover of The Once and Future Moon

This book by Paul Spudis is scientifically accurate and well-written for any proverbial intelligent layperson to enjoy. Paul’s (sadly, now a name on a crater near the lunar south pole) book is a popular introduction to the Moon 4.5 billion history, describing its catastrophic formation, its strange landforms and their geology, and especially the exploration by robotic spacecraft and Apollo astronauts – all of which Paul was involved with. In his lunar column for Smithsonian Magazine, Paul perfected his knack for revealing the fascinating history of the Moon and the reasons for humans to return. And now, 50 years since the last Apollo astronaut left the Moon, women and men will return starting this decade. You need to read The Once and Future Moon to be prepared - maybe prepared to go yourself.


Who am I?

While watching my first eclipse of the Moon in the 5th grade I was awed that the Earth’s shadow stretched so far into space and by the speed the Moon passed through it. I started reading science fiction books and in high school discovered Sky & Telescope magazine. I've read S&T ever since and have proudly written its Moon column for the last 21 years. I've also built telescopes for backyard observing, earned a PhD in planetary science, worked at NASA & the Planetary Science Institute, written three books about the Moon, prepared 6 years of daily Lunar Photo of the Day blogs, and have been chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Lunar Nomenclature Task Group.


I wrote...

21st Century Atlas of the Moon

By Charles A. Wood, Maurice J. S. Collins,

Book cover of 21st Century Atlas of the Moon

What is my book about?

As a student and observer of the Moon, I always wanted a perfect atlas for use at the telescope and in my study, so Maurice Collins and I created it. Our 21st Century Atlas of the Moon is beautifully illustrated with images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which still circles the Moon every 2 hours with cameras clicking. LRO imaged Apollo Astronauts’ footprints on the Moon; impossibly tiny to be seen from Earth but our atlas shows exactly where to see astronaut landing sites. Lunar craters are named for famous scientists, and with the 21st Century Atlas of the Moon you can find the home crater for each of these humans, as well as the seas of Serenity and Tranquility – but be cautious of the Ocean of Storms!

Epic Moon

By William P. Sheehan, Thomas A. Dobbins,

Book cover of Epic Moon: A History of Lunar Exploration in the Age of the Telescope

Epic Moon tells the stories of the often odd characters and their thoughts about the Moon in the 400 years before Apollo. Although Galileo and one or two other early astronomers found evidence that the Moon did not hold water or air, the search for life and changes such as volcanic eruptions, light flashes, insect migrations, vegetation growth, and lunar cities dominated most lunar mapping and telescopic exploration and interpretation. The observers weren’t crazy, the Moon was completely alien, but humans understood only what was known on Earth. Terrestrial impact craters were not recognized until the early 1900s and the origins of many were still doubted into the 1960s. The fundamental discoveries starting with Galileo, skipping to Mädler in the 1830s, and Shoemaker and Baldwin in the 1950s, finally reached a firmament of understanding after Apollo when scientists established the new disciplines of lunar and planetary science.

Who am I?

While watching my first eclipse of the Moon in the 5th grade I was awed that the Earth’s shadow stretched so far into space and by the speed the Moon passed through it. I started reading science fiction books and in high school discovered Sky & Telescope magazine. I've read S&T ever since and have proudly written its Moon column for the last 21 years. I've also built telescopes for backyard observing, earned a PhD in planetary science, worked at NASA & the Planetary Science Institute, written three books about the Moon, prepared 6 years of daily Lunar Photo of the Day blogs, and have been chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Lunar Nomenclature Task Group.


I wrote...

21st Century Atlas of the Moon

By Charles A. Wood, Maurice J. S. Collins,

Book cover of 21st Century Atlas of the Moon

What is my book about?

As a student and observer of the Moon, I always wanted a perfect atlas for use at the telescope and in my study, so Maurice Collins and I created it. Our 21st Century Atlas of the Moon is beautifully illustrated with images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which still circles the Moon every 2 hours with cameras clicking. LRO imaged Apollo Astronauts’ footprints on the Moon; impossibly tiny to be seen from Earth but our atlas shows exactly where to see astronaut landing sites. Lunar craters are named for famous scientists, and with the 21st Century Atlas of the Moon you can find the home crater for each of these humans, as well as the seas of Serenity and Tranquility – but be cautious of the Ocean of Storms!

To the Bright Edge of the World

By Eowyn Ivey,

Book cover of To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World is the story of a strong, young woman who learns to manage on her own after her new husband leaves to explore the Arctic on a military expedition, just a few years before the onset of the Alaskan gold rush. The author is from Alaska, so her landscape descriptions are spot on, and the husband’s letters from the north are fraught with tension. But the primary nuggets of gold in this novel are the wife’s ruminations about life and humanity, including arrogance, strong women, and the freedom to pursue one’s passion.


Who am I?

I’m a huge fan of Alaska—a landscape of unforgiving weather patterns, inaccessible terrain, savage animals, and undeniable pristine beauty. I’m also a nature lover and spend as much time outdoors as possible, often hiking and marveling at spectacular vistas like those found in The Damnable Legacy. But I’m also an avid observer of the human race and am fascinated by all sorts of behaviors: why we pursue our passions, how we love and grieve, and whether we can really change who we are at the core. 


I wrote...

The Damnable Legacy

By G. Elizabeth Kretchmer,

Book cover of The Damnable Legacy

What is my book about?

Lynn Van Swol still regrets the decision she made thirty years ago to place her daughter for adoption so she could be free to pursue her passion for mountain climbing. Frankie Rizzoni is the troubled granddaughter Lynn has never known. And Beth Mahoney is a minister’s wife, and the only one who knows the relationship between Lynn and Frankie. The problem is that she is diagnosed with terminal cancer and doesn’t have long to live. She designs a plan to bring them together, but now narrating from the afterlife, she witnesses its unraveling.

The Damnable Legacy is a story about both love and survival, exploring the importance of attachment, place, and faith, and asking how far we should go to achieve our goalsand at what cost.

The Sea Road

By Margaret Elphinstone,

Book cover of The Sea Road

The ‘sea-fiction’ literary canon is very male-focused. But in the real world, women put to sea too, and were sometimes at the forefront of exploration. Maria, the heroine of my novel, was the first non-native woman to set foot on the northwest coast of America, when she arrived with Francis Drake during his circumnavigation voyage in the summer of 1579. Five hundred years earlier, on the other side of the continent, another female pioneer, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, explored and settled the Newfoundland coast. 

Gudrid, the ‘Far Travelled’ of Icelandic sagas, is brought to life in this beautifully written and vividly imagined novel. Rich in historical detail and steeped in the mythology and worldview of the Vikings, it’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of an extraordinary woman at the edge of the known world.


Who am I?

I am a historical fiction writer living in a landlocked village in the Chilterns, UK. I became obsessed with long sea voyages while researching my debut novel, On Wilder Seas, which is inspired by the true story of Maria, the only woman aboard the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage in 1577-1580. I immersed myself in the literature of the sea, in early modern sailors’ accounts of their terrifying voyages, in their wills and diaries, in maps and sea-logs. A ship is the perfect setting for a novel: the confined space, the impossibility of escape, the ever-present danger – and the hostile, unforgiving sea is the ultimate antagonist.


I wrote...

On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

By Nikki Marmery,

Book cover of On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

What is my book about?

Inspired by a true story, this is the tale of one woman's uncharted voyage to freedom. April 1579. When two ships meet off the Pacific coast of New Spain, an enslaved woman seizes the chance to escape. But Maria has unwittingly joined Francis Drake's circumnavigation voyage as he sets sail on a secret detour into the far north. Sailing into the unknown on the Golden Hind, a lone woman among eighty men, Maria will be tested to the very limits of her endurance. It will take all her wits to survive - and courage to cut the ties that bind her to Drake to pursue her own journey. How far will Maria go to be truly free?

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