Amid political division, a pandemic, and natural disasters aplenty, it’s no wonder readers are looking to the stars. “I’ve found a lot of comfort in thinking about space in these last several years,” says Norton editor Jessica Yao. “When life on Earth feels constrained and limited, space still feels open and possible.” She’s not alone: PW spoke with editors and authors whose forthcoming books depict the science and wonder of exploring a vast, ever-changing universe.
Boldly going where no telescope has gone before
Nearly every editor interviewed for this piece mentioned the James Webb telescope, whose infrared images of galaxies billions of light-years away have served as a gateway drug for the astronomy-curious. “The fact that we’ve put such an advanced telescope into space is huge,” says Abigail Johnson, associate editor for the physical sciences at Princeton University Press. “When viewing from the ground, we can only see the part of the sky that the Earth is facing at nighttime, but a telescope in space gives us a wider field of view and can move around—it’s a completely different vantage point.”
The Little Book of Exoplanets (July) by Joshua Winn, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and a co-investigator in NASA’s ongoing Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission, is the latest in a series of titles from Princeton University Press that survey emerging areas of physics and astronomy. Winn’s guide to planets outside of Earth’s solar system gives readers “a sense of our place in the universe,” Johnson says. “We used to think Earth was all there was, until we found out that we’re part of a whole system of planets, that our system is one of hundreds of thousands. With each discovery we learn how the Earth is and isn’t unique; we’ve even found Earth-like planets with the Kepler 2009 and TESS missions.”
In For the Love of Mars (Univ. of Chicago, May), National Air and Space Museum curator Matthew Shindell describes efforts to understand a celestial body closer to home, tracing the red planet’s evolution in the popular imagination. Mars played a part in Mayan religious ceremonies and seasonal calendars, for example, and was the source of Victorian astronomers’ musings about life on other worlds.
Today, Shindell explains, the cultural and social dimensions of what we do in space reflect back on global political maneuverings: U.S. and Russian astronauts live cheek by jowl on the International Space Station, in a show of strength and leadership even as the two countries are at odds 250 miles below them. “You can’t operate as a modern nation without that investment in space infrastructure,” he says.
Are we alone in the universe? Maybe not, according to forthcoming books that give serious scientific consideration to the question. “This fascination is evergreen,” says John Glynn, senior editor at Hanover Square Press. “As long as there’ve been stars in the sky and people to look up at them, we’ve always wondered what’s out there.” Glynn edited The Possibility of Life (Apr.) by Jaime Greene, series editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her forthcoming book considers, per its subtitle, “our quest for kinship in the cosmos,” and interrogates the question of what the discovery of alien life might mean for life on Earth.
Ariel Waldman covers similar territory in Out There (Running Press, Aug.), which looks at the scientific fact underpinning an array of science fiction themes, including the likelihood of our encountering alien life. (See “On- and Off-World,”, for our q&a with Waldman.)
Mariner executive editor Matt Harper, who edited Interstellar by Avi Loeb (Aug.), says that although science fiction has dominated our view of life on other planets, “It’s far less likely that aliens will show up on the White House lawn than that we’ll encounter some space junk.” Loeb, chair of the astronomy department at Harvard, is also the author of the “thought-provoking” (per PW’s review) 2021 title Extraterrestrial, which posited a 2017 visit by alien technology to our solar system. The idea, long the province of tin-foil haberdashers rather than Ivy League astronomers, is gaining credence in academia, and from there, the mainstream. Loeb asks in his new book: if we have indeed discovered proof of extraterrestrial life, what do we do on day two?
This year’s model
Other new titles look at how computer simulations aid in the study of cosmology and galaxy formation, including Simulating the Cosmos by University of Edinburgh physics chair Romeel Davé, a July release from Reaktion Books. This modeling, says Reaktion publisher and commissioning editor Michael R. Leaman, facilitates an understanding beyond what scientists can observe or make sense of through experimentation.
“The further out you go, the less there is that we can measure,” Leaman says. “Modeling is the avenue we take to try and work out what the universe might look like many trillions of light-years away. It’s a way of imagining what can’t be seen: new galaxies, the distance between them, new planets, and so on.”
In an earlier era, says Riverhead executive editor Courtney Young, scientists fashioned mini galaxies with hundreds of light bulbs, which they moved around to simulate interstellar collisions. Today, physicists translate their theories into code and run simulations on supercomputers. In her acquisition The Universe in a Box (June), cosmologist Andrew Pontzen describes how the process works and what has and hasn’t been revealed—yet. “Anytime we see something new,” Young says, “it reminds us that there’s more out there that we haven’t found.”
Young also edits Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist whose previous books include Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (194,000 print copies sold). In White Holes (Riverhead, Oct.), he discusses one of the great questions of cosmology: what happens inside a black hole? “We’re trying to understand the flow of time,” Young says. “The book is very personal—it talks about the experience of coming up with these ideas, the
collaboration with other scientists, the trepidation around an idea with which many others will likely disagree.”
Several editors brought up the privatization of space travel, and frequent news items about SpaceX and Blue Origin, as capturing public interest and raising important questions.
“Space is no longer just the stomping ground of the federal government,” says Hanover Square’s Glynn.
Ecco associate publisher Miriam Parker agrees. “It was the same for a very long time,” she says. “Governments paid to go, the space shuttle went up, astronauts manned them. In the last eight to 10 years, because of Astra, RocketLabs, SpaceX, this shift happened. People like Jeff Bezos going to space makes people think it’s more attainable. It’s not a government thing anymore; it’s a corporate thing.”
Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Ashlee Vance delves into the ramifications of cosmic capitalism in When the Heavens Went on Sale (Ecco, May), which PW’s starred review called “a fresh look at the new space race.” Vance, author of 2015’s Elon Musk (428,000 print copies sold), writes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is “the first true Space War”; the Ukrainian military has used the commercial satellite system to monitor Russian troop movements. There are currently 2,500 satellites circling the Earth, and Vance estimates that that number will grow to 100,000 within the next 10 years.
The public is now thinking about our future in space, editors say, and about who gets to define that future. In Worlds Without End, an April release from MIT Press, University of Arizona astronomy professor Chris Impey ponders the ethics of exploring space and what such ventures mean for life on Earth.
“He addresses questions of land grabbing and how, historically, human exploration has skewed this way,” says Jermey Matthews, senior acquisition editor, physical science, engineering, and mathematics, at MIT Press. “We’re seeing the challenges of humans fighting over space, of access to space travel ending up in the hands of billionaires.”
Philip Plait, known to some 610,000 Twitter followers as Bad Astronomer, takes a conversational approach to space travel in Under Alien Skies (Norton, Apr.), aimed at what his editor Jessica Yao describes as a “joyfully nerdy crowd.” Writing in the second person, “Plait provides accessible overviews of the strange and exciting science involved in the otherworldly scenes,” per PW’s starred review, making for “an awe-inspiring tour of the cosmos.”
For the joyful nerds, the armchair astronomers, and those who want to be astronauts when they grow up—good news, these authors say: the stars are getting closer with every revolution of the Earth.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the memoir Never Simple.
Corrections: This article has been edited to clarify information about the Kepler 2009 and TESS missions. A previous version of this article misspelled MIT senior acquisition editor Jermey Mathews's name.
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