I made the cover of How It Works magazine for the third month in a row! The above screenshot is from the publisher’s website where you can buy copies even if you missed them when they came out. As you can see, the subjects are pretty eclectic. November’s feature was all about UFOs, which is a longstanding interest of mine (the weirder aspects of the topic are covered in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, although the magazine feature is focused on more mundane causes of unidentified aerial phenomena). Then my December piece was about the James Webb Space Telescope, currently on its way to explore the depths of the universe – an online version is available on the LiveScience website. Finally this month’s article is about the huge nuclear-fusion-producing laser at the National Ignition Facility in California – that one is online too.
I’ve been writing books, ebooks and online articles for about 8 years now, but it’s only recently that I can add print magazines to the list. Until 6 months ago, my only experience in this area was for Fortean Times, where I’ve had 15 short pieces published since 2012. But as unique and prestigious as FT is, that only averages 2 articles per year. Then back in June I made contact with another great magazine called How It Works, after they gave my book Cosmic Impact a 5-star review. I’ve had a steady stream of assignments from them since then – plus a few from its sister magazine All About Space – as you can see from the pile of issues pictured above.
All the covers have features by me mentioned on them. Most prominent is the one about the Big Bang for All About Space. I’m also responsible for “Secrets of Apollo 11” – the one in small print on the top-left How It Works, not the main cover feature of the same title for All About Space (my contribution to the latter issue being “Do We Live in a Multiverse?”). In the other HIW issues, look out for “Your Guide to Time Travel”, “The Amazing Power of Antimatter”, “How Jupiter Saved the Earth”, “Mapping the Milky Way” and “Deadly Weapons of the Future” – they’re all by me. Slightly miffed about the last title, though, as the article itself is mainly about non-lethal weapons!
There are a few other pieces by me hidden inside some of the issues, plus more on the way. I’ve added a new page to my website to keep track of them.
This is my third contribution to the Hot Science series from Icon Books, after Destination Mars and Cosmic Impact. The publishers decided on the book’s title (and even advertised it online) before I was assigned to the project, which was a new experience for me. And it was more than a little daunting that the title contains “biology” – a subject I know next to nothing about. When I took the book on, I planned to focus mainly on the “astro” part – my comfort zone – but in writing it I got more enthusiastic about the biology side, which ended up filling a fair chunk of the book after all.
Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe is available from all the usual places – for example Amazon.com or Amazon UK – both as a paperback and an ebook. Here is the back-cover blurb:
Extraterrestrial life is a common theme in science fiction, but is it a serious prospect in the real world? Astrobiology is the emerging field of science that seeks to answer this question.
The possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos is one of the most profound subjects that human beings can ponder. Astrophysicist Andrew May gives an expert overview of our current state of knowledge, looking at how life started on Earth, the tell-tale ‘signatures’ it produces, and how such signatures might be detected elsewhere in the Solar System or on the many exoplanets now being discovered by the Kepler and TESS missions.
Along the way the book addresses key questions such as the riddle of Fermi’s paradox (‘Where is everybody?’) and the crucial role of DNA and water – they’re essential to ‘life as we know it’, but is the same true of alien life? And the really big question: when we eventually find extraterrestrials, will they be friendly or hostile?
As you can see from the above picture, the current issue of the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine includes a review of my book Cosmic Impact. It’s a really nice review, too, by Katrin Raynor-Evans – who says, among other positive things: “The text is superb … It is informative and clear, and May manages to encapsulate everything you need to know about the potential risk to our planet and species.” She gives it four stars out of five.
Cosmic Impact also gets four stars from Brian Clegg, at his Popular Science book review site. Again the review has lots of positive comments, including the following:
This short book is ideal to get a good overview of the subject without having to delve into too much technical detail – and May makes it approachable by giving the subject context from the many science fiction and popular culture scenarios … where something hits the Earth from outer space.
Finally, although I haven’t seen it myself, I’m told I got a very brief but favourable mention in New Scientist, in the issue dated 2 February 2019. It’s in the “Don’t Miss” column, under the subheading “Read”. After recommending the Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration to “armchair adventurers” they go on to say:
But if hiding under the sofa is more your style, try Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets by Andrew May.
If you want to do just that, you can find it in any good bookstore or via the following Amazon links:
Postscript 10 May 2019
Another excellent review in the May issue of How It Works magazine – this time with a five-star rating:
Following in the footsteps of Destination Mars, my second contribution to the Hot Science series has just been published by Icon Books. It’s called Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets, and here is what the publishers say about it:
As end-of-the-world scenarios go, an apocalyptic collision with an asteroid or comet is the new kid on the block, gaining respectability only in the last decade of the 20th century with the realisation that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by just such an impact.
Now the science community is making up for lost time, with worldwide efforts to track the thousands of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, and plans for high-tech hardware that could deflect an incoming object from a collision course – a procedure depicted, with little regard for scientific accuracy, in several Hollywood movies.
Astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May disentangles fact from fiction in this fast-moving and entertaining account, covering the nature and history of comets and asteroids, the reason why some orbits are more hazardous than others, the devastating local and global effects that an impact event would produce, and – more optimistically – the way future space missions could avert a catastrophe.
Cosmic Impact is available either as a paperback or an ebook from all the usual places. If you’re an Amazon customer, here are some quick links for you:
These days I always seem to be working on a lot of things at once, so “next book” has multiple meanings. There’s the next one to be published, which I finished writing several months ago and is now making its way through the publisher’s production process. There’s the one I’ve been asked to write and given a title for, but I’ve barely started to think about it yet. And then there’s the one I’m actually writing at the moment. That’s the one I’m talking about here. There’s a clue to its subject matter in the research material pictured above!
I’ve just belatedly produced a promotional video for my book The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon, which came out last summer. Here it is:
The background “music” (actually just a sequence of spacey sounding chords) is my own composition!
Hot on the heels of Destination Mars, here’s another book of mine that’s new out this month – The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon, published by Springer. I actually wrote it several months after the Mars book, but Springer have a very fast system compared with more traditional publishers so it caught up!
This is the second book I’ve done with Springer, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year. That one was in a series called Science and Fiction, and in fact there’s quite a lot of SF in this new one too (as you might guess from my earlier blog post about lunar research). However, this book actually belongs to a different series – the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. Here’s the blurb:
Have you ever been inspired by stunning images from the Hubble telescope, or the magic of sci-fi special effects, only to look through a small backyard telescope at the disappointing white dot of a planet or faint blur of a galaxy? Yet the Moon is different. Seen through even a relatively cheap telescope, it springs into life like a real place, with mountains and valleys and rugged craters. With a bit of imagination, you can even picture yourself as a sightseeing visitor there – which in a sense you are.
Whether you’re interested in visiting Apollo landing sites or the locations of classic sci-fi movies, this is the tourist guide for you! It tells you the best times to view the Moon, the most exciting sights to look out for, and the best equipment to use, allowing you to snap stunning photographs as well as view the sights with your own eyes.
About a year ago I did a couple of posts on my old blog (here and here) showing some of the books and DVDs I had the pleasure of “researching” for my Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. Now I’m working on the follow-up. It’s not really a sequel, except that it’s for the same publisher and involves a similar mix of science fiction and real science (though no pseudoscience this time).
The general subject will be easy enough to guess from the “research” materials pictured above. My book is going to have a Unique Selling Point … but I don’t want to divulge that until its finished!
About six months ago I got interested in photographing the Moon, and I’ve been posting some of the results on Facebook. Mostly I’ve used a simple telescope webcam, which can produce high-resolution images of relatively localized areas such as the one above (showing the lunar north pole at the top and the Alpine Valley at the bottom, with the craters Aristoteles and Eudoxus to the east of it). Then a few days ago I posted a wider field of view using a DSLR on the same telescope, and Rhodri Evans asked how that compared with using the DSLR with its own lens.
That prompted me to try a few tests last night (with the Moon at first quarter). For anyone who may have just stumbled across this blog, I should stress that I know almost nothing about astrophotography, so please don’t take this as “best practice” advice. On the other hand, it does give an idea what a beginner can achieve with bottom-of-the-market equipment (I’ll give details of the hardware and software at the end of the post).
To start with, here is a picture of the Moon taken through the 75-300 mm lens that came with the camera. This uses the highest zoom (300 mm) at f/16, 1/250 second exposure, ISO-800 (settings visually optimized using Live View). It’s the sort of picture anyone with a DSLR could take.
Now here’s a single frame taken with the same camera attached to the telescope (i.e. effectively using the telescope as a long telephoto lens). My telescope has a focal length of 600 mm, but I used a 2x Barlow lens as well, which doubled the focal length to 1200 mm (i.e. four times the camera’s own lens). The telescope aperture is 120 mm, which I guess makes it f/10, and again I used a 1/250 exposure and ISO-800.
I also took a short movie (20 seconds, 500 frames) using the same settings, and stacked the result into a single image using Autostakkert. The result is a definite improvement (I tried the same trick with the camera-only shot, but in that case it made things worse).
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of those three photos. The telescope is an improvement on the camera alone, but stacking is what really works the magic.
As I said at the start, I normally use a small astronomical webcam to capture images, because it’s so easy to use. Optically this is identical to attaching the DSLR to the telescope (aperture 120 mm, focal length 1200mm with the 2x Barlow lens), but the field of view is much smaller because the sensor array is tiny (4.8 mm rather than 22.3 mm). For the same reason the image drifts across the screen more quickly (I don’t have a tracking mount), so I only have time to grab a 10-second video, or 300 frames at 30 fps. Nevertheless the results – such as the example at the top of this post – are impressive after stacking in Autostakkert.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of that picture with the same area seen in the single-frame DSLR+telescope and DSLR-alone images:
For reference, my telescope is a Skywatcher Startravel-120 refractor on an equatorial mount, which cost me £389. There are plenty of other good telescopes available around this price. The webcam is a ZWO ASI120MC, which at around £170 is pretty much the cheapest astronomical camera on the market. Similarly my DSLR is from the bottom of the market – a Canon EOS 100D, which I got complete with two zoom lenses for just £379.
The ZWO camera came with two pieces of software – SharpCap for capturing videos and Autostakkert for stacking – but they’re both freely available online (here and here respectively). In the examples shown here, I used GIMP (also free) to crop, rotate and contrast-enhance the images.