They look like eyes, egg yolks, embryos, dust bunnies from under your bed, scarlet cobwebs, incandescent hurricanes and pond scum under a microscope -- until you become aware of the formidable scales of distance and force they portray.
Often eerily organic-looking, the images in these books form a collective portrait of the observable universe as revealed by Earth technology at the end of the second millennium. It's a seething extravaganza of hellish worlds, star birth, star death, wheeling galaxies, molecular clouds, the violence around black holes and what-have-you, all in designer color: the perfect cosmos for our visual age.
Some of the pictures have been incorporated into the culture, popping up in commercials, recruiting ads for high-tech jobs and on CD covers, as metaphors for the generic "cutting edge." It's easy to forget what they actually represent. This stuff is really out there.
As science writer Timothy Ferris writes in the foreword to David Malin's The Invisible Universe (Bulfinch, $50), "Observational astronomy -- like, say, bird-watching or golf -- is a participatory activity: The rewards it provides are a function of how much knowledge and skill one brings to the process." These books, to varying degrees, help re-engage the imagination.
The spellbinding photographs of astrophotographer Malin, of the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Australia, have appeared in countless exhibitions, books, movies and other media. (The books described here rely disproportionately on him and certain other prolific image-makers, such as NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.)
In Invisible Universe, published in an oversized format, Malin presents a majestic array of his wares assembled over more than two decades, including night-sky images never before seen in color. He uses a special photographic process to reveal the denizens of the void in all their diversity. The colors are as subtle and rich as high-end cashmere.
The book is arranged by constellation, like an ancient star atlas. In his foreword, Ferris notes that Malin seeks "to link the ancient stories of the stars with our modern understanding." Each section includes images from both categories.
In his eerie, first-ever image of the ghostly nebula known as CG 4, Malin reveals a sculpture of gas and dust transformed by reflected starlight into something enchanting yet slightly blood-curdling. Indeed, this undulant blue structure, with green and pink overtones, is likely to be reproduced often as one of those Rorschach blots from nature. While Malin has dubbed it "The Hand of God Cometary Globule," another book on the list (Magnificent Universe) sees it as a monstrous mouth about to devour a galaxy.
Accompanying the 50-plus photographic reproductions are brief discussions of the history, mythology and science, along with apt quotations from literature. One learns, for instance, that the star Betelgeuse, in Orion's belt, is a degenerate form of the Arabic for "armpit of the central one." Next to an eye-popping picture of an "ocean of stars" that looks like beach sand poured on black velvet, Malin quotes Plato: "And after having thus framed the universe, he alloted to it souls equal in number to the stars, inserting each in each."
Magnificent Universe, by Ken Croswell (Simon & Schuster, $60), is elegant and eloquent. With more than 100 glossy, sharp full-color "portraits," it starts with the Sun's family of planets, including Earth, and works outward to distant galaxies. Among the highlights are pictures of Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io looking like an abused grapefruit; dazzling designs painted by dying stars; the aqua and gold pinwheel of galaxy NGC 1232, the galaxies Dwingeloo and the Amazing Sombrero, and the "bull's-eye" pattern created when one galaxy dove through the center of another. There is a tribute to the Milky Way, Earth's home galaxy, and there is the famous Hubble image of the glowing "towers" in the Eagle Nebula.
The lyrical text by Harvard astronomer Croswell offers deft summaries and useful tidbits: "If earth is an inch from the Sun, Pluto is 40 inches. A light year is a mile." Regarding Mars, he explains, the planet is ruddy for the same reason blood is. And in a description of a neutron star, he notes, the gravity is so powerful that if you dropped a pebble from a height of four feet it would smash into the surface at 5 million mph.
Croswell also provides a brief, jargon-free account of current thinking on the origins, evolution and fate of the universe, and traces the cascade of events by which, "with the emergence of life . . . part of the material world began to think."
Other Worlds: Images of the Cosmos From Earth and Space by James Trefil (National Geographic, $35) is another pictorial tour that runs from the solar system outward. The emphasis, in keeping with Geographic tradition, is on spectacular photographs and graphics with detailed captions. (A quibble: The credit for each picture is buried in a hard-to-navigate lump of fine print at the back of the book.)
Trefil, a physics professor at George Mason University, provides clear and accessible accompanying text. Given a universe known to span roughly 165 billion trillion miles, he suggests it can best be comprehended "by splitting it into smaller and smaller subunits that nest within each other, just like Russian matryoshka dolls." He traces the history of toil and insight that have brought scientists to their current understanding of the expanding universe.
The focus lingers on Earth's neighborhood for 170 of the 256 pages, providing stand-out images of the Sun and Venus and a perspective on the planet Earth as seen from space. There is a satellite image of the "gloriously tortured" topography of the Himalayas, attesting to the powerful forces at work inside our planet, and a snapshot of Washington, D.C., from space shuttle radar. A striking portrait of the Jupiter system shows the moon Io casting its tiny shadow against the vast swirling cloudtops of the giant gas planet.
Farther out in the cosmos, the pageant includes jewel-like portraits of dying stars, a globular cluster, the mayhem around black holes, and a maelstrom of galactic "cannibalism" in shades of ochre and aubergine. A Hubble Telescope closeup of the Helix Nebula in pastels reveals thousands of "cometary knots" -- bits of condensation that appear to have heads and tails. They resemble ethereal tadpoles swimming out of some otherworldly reef -- except that each "head" spans several billion miles.
In the foreword, David Levy, discoverer of 21 comets, provides a friendly welcome to the night sky with his description of a life paced by the phases of the moon and imbued with the blessings of "becoming one with the sky through patient observation."
With a foreword by Skylab astronaut Edward G. Gibson, the third edition of The Universe and Beyond by Terence Dickinson (Firefly, $29.95 paperback) views the cosmos as a frontier for human exploration. From the Moon and Mars, we feel drawn further outward, Gibson writes, "like a bear pursuing a trail of honey" -- to the edges of the universe -- and "into the unknown beyond."
The softcover book is packed with information, its photographic images augmented with explanatory graphics and artistic renderings. Dickinson focuses his text on the answers to frequently asked questions, and includes quotations from science and literature. (This edition contains 25 percent more information and 50 percent more images than previous ones, Dickinson notes.)
He begins by following a single photon of light from an auto headlight up and away from Earth's surface. "Less than two seconds later, it passes the Moon. One minute after that, Earth and Moon diminish to starlike points." After 10 million years, the light particle is in the dark beyond the neighbor galaxy Andromeda, with millions of years to go before its next galactic encounters. "And the journey has just begun."
Dickinson escorts the reader among the planets, sensing the toxic heat of Venus and the roiling hurricanes of Jupiter. He fantasizes about a future human excursion among the rings of Saturn, as envisioned in a sun-dazzled illustration by Don Davis. Beyond the solar system, the tour includes visions of hypothetical worlds around other stars.
Toward the end, the book ponders larger questions and notes that respected scientists now theorize that our universe "may be but a tiny segment of the whole creation, an atomlike blip in the body of a colossal cosmic realm." The poet Walt Whitman, quoted in chapter seven, was ahead of the curve: "Let your soul stand cool and composed," he wrote, "before a million universes."
Companion to an eight-part Arts and Entertainment television series, The Planets by David McNab and James Younger (Yale, $35) traces the steps that made ours "the age when we first broke free of our planet and ventured out to other worlds." It describes Soviet as well as American accomplishments.
The book's organization, however, seems jumbled. You're discovering Pluto, then going to the Moon. You think you've landed on Venus, then you're on Mars, and suddenly you're in a discussion of Earth geology.
There are also lapses of information. For example, the authors repeat uncritically the tale of a bacterium said to have traveled from Earth to the moon, surviving two and a half years in the harsh vacuum of space before it was brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts. That scenario was disputed at the time and is now dismissed by top NASA life scientists.
For a comprehensive close-up on the planets and environs, it's hard to beat The New Solar System, edited by J. Kelly Beatty, Carolyn Collins Petersen and Andrew Chaikin (Cambridge, $39.95), published earlier this year. First issued in 1981, the fourth edition is a compendium of the science, history and politics of space, with graphs, illustrations and photographs. True, it's more of a reference work than a "gift book," but for those with a deep curiosity about the subject, it could be both. The Planets, in any case, offers pretty pictures and graphics aplenty. Perhaps the organizational approach works better on TV.
Kathy Sawyer covers space and technology for The Washington Post.