#744 Bob McDonald leaves the planet

An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Black Holes, Dwarf Planets, Aliens, and More
by Bob McDonald

Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019
$29.99 / 9781982106850

Reviewed by John Hutchings


Victoria-based Bob McDonald is a Canadian icon of science reporting and a catalyst of informed popular discussion. In addition to his weekly science program, he has produced several books, ranging from astronaut interviews to his life as a reporter and science-themed books for children. An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space, his first compendium of current topics from beyond the Earth, sets out to inform “curious minds everywhere” about everything they ever wanted to know about outer space. Written in an engaging and down-to-earth style, An Earthling’s Guide is also presented with McDonald’s characteristic enthusiasm and clarity.

It took me a few chapters to see that An Earthling’s Guide is not necessarily for enquiring minds of all ages. The style and the presentation set the readership in the 8 to 14 age group. Once that is clear, the message works well: engage but do not overwhelm young readers’ minds with details and complications. Older enquiring minds may feel shortchanged or frustrated. Each chapter ends with a simple exercise (“You Try It!”) for young readers and their friends to verify some of the principles involved.

The book ambitiously covers topics from cosmology to how toilets work in microgravity. Each chapter heading is in the form of a question to be answered or discussed. Perhaps these topics are what most of McDonald’s audience want to know. Perhaps it is what they are fed by the media. For someone whose life has been spent investigating the cosmos,  An Earthling’s Guide invoked a range of reactions based largely on whether topics have been presented fully, fairly, and without succumbing to the inevitable temptations of the sensational.

Comet, meteors, meteorites, and asteroids. An illustration from An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space

The book covers its range of topics evenly, starting with selected broad astronomy concerns (“the big questions”), including dark matter, how stars form and shine, our galaxy, black holes, and UFOs. Each chapter stands on its own regardless of connections with other chapters.

The next section deals with the Earth as a planet, planets in general, why and how cosmic objects orbit each other, and a brief history and synopsis of telescopes.

The third section is all about human spaceflight and space missions, including details of astronaut training, with some nice anecdotes and personal details.

The last section, “Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful,” is a return to current general topics in astronomy news. Here we find how the dinosaurs died (and made way for us), learn about gravitational wave astronomy, and take a tour of some of the smaller objects, including those made by us, in the solar system environment.

Numerous sketches illustrate points in the text and occasional extra-information pages provide related anecdotes or details. Interestingly, and presumably deliberately, there are no actual photographs of astronomical objects.

Astronaut on skateboard. Illustration from An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space

As an astronomer, I naturally have some nerdy quibbles. For example, it is now known that the Milky Way is a barred galaxy — not a simple spiral. How did that come about? The dark matter chapter lacks the major observation of how the observed rotation of galaxies demands it. But why no mention of dark energy — the biggest mystery of all? One concern I had is that the book’s juvenile readers may come away with a simplified impression lacking some vital information — such as that the elements beyond the first three are produced by nuclear fusion in stars. The chapter on Black Holes seems to me to dodge a lot of what is really understood, or even supposed, about them — and the ways they may form and grow. They are actually major sources of radiation in the universe.

On the other side of the coin, I applaud the chapter that deals with UFOs and their supposed mystery, and the text that deals with “fake science.” An Earthling’s Guide is intended, in McDonald’s words, to encourage kids to think beyond memorizing facts and to come to a real understanding of how the universe works. He does a good job of explaining a seemingly random set of topics in an approachable and entertaining way. We owe McDonald a debt for that – and not only in this book, but in his regular broadcasts.

Bob McDonald
Voskhod and Soyuz rockets. From An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space

The chapters on spaceflight and astronauts stand as great journalism, based on a lot of personal experience that is nicely related. They give a balanced view of the challenges and successes of human spaceflight.

I have a few more general notes. Given that this is a strongly Canadian book in many ways, I find it odd that American spelling is used. This must be an editorial decision, but why? McDonald’s other publications are not presented this way. While on Canadian matters, I noted that McDonald’s mention of the two next-generation huge telescopes omits the one that Canada is deeply involved in: the TMT (the Thirty Meter Telescope, planned for Mt. Mauna Kea in Hawaii). The Hubble telescope chapter is really only about the Hubble constant, and mentions none of the complex instruments on board. The lunar gateway project is far from settled, so McDonald’s discussion may be outdated already. Dwarf planets really are not snowballs. And the dinosaurs may have died very quickly by being roasted by the immediate thermal results of the K-T event (the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event of some 65.5 million years ago).

An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space should interest and excite youngsters as they develop life interests and attitudes. It portrays many of the wonders of the universe, notes how little we understand many of them, and drives home how special and precious our home planet is. The next generation will have to deal with such issues, and Bob McDonald’s book is an excellent way to spark that process.


John Hutchings

John Hutchings is an astronomer whose research has ranged from hot stars to black hole binaries and quasars. He has used telescopes around the world and in space, and from X-ray to radio wavelengths. Born in South Africa and a graduate of Cambridge University, he has been based at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria since 1967 and has worked with colleagues and space agencies around the world. He led Canadian participation in a series of key missions, including the International Ultraviolet Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, Astrosat and the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope. He is currently working on new space observatories for Canadian participation. He also writes mystery novels based on his travels — stories about ordinary people who get involved in adventures beyond their normal experience, from shady dealings in the wine trade (A Fine Drop, 2011) to difficult situations on coastal British Columbia (Death in Remote Places, 2013) and South America (The Clue from Cusco, 2017). John lives in North Saanich.


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