If we need anything at the end of this year, it's perspective. And these four dazzling books can give it to you. No, they can't explain the political upheaval in Washington or the #MeToo backlash in Hollywood. But spend a few hours perusing these pages and you'll be in a much better frame of mind to understand your place in the cosmos.
The 24th edition of the Oxford Atlas of the World (Oxford University Press, $89.95) is a mammoth collection of lush color maps and satellite photographs that illuminates every spot on Earth. Seen from space, places such as Christchurch, New Zealand, look like lichen growing on a sheet of blue glass. Jerusalem appears in a tangle of ancient streets even more complex than the city's past. The text is equally revealing, offering profiles of each country's geography, politics and history. Another section offers an overview of the world's climates, populations, conflicts, economies and more. It's impossible to read this massive seven-pound book without being impressed by the diversity and interconnectedness of our world.
Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World (Phaidon $59.95) takes a wonderfully original approach to — well, to everything. In his introduction, astronomer Paul Murdin explains that this book "examines our response to the cosmos on all levels, from the spirit of scientific inquiry that has gradually revealed the underlying structure of the Universe to the religious mysticism that saw the heavens as the realm of a god or gods." That expansive editorial vision has produced a collection of images that ranges freely from artistic to scientific, from paintings by William Blake to photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. Adding to the sense of surprise and revelation, these images are arranged in striking pairs. For instance, a landmark photograph of stars taken by Paul and Prosper Henry in Paris in 1887 faces a haunting painting by German artist Anselm Kiefer. Murdin writes, "Many of the images prove that, as astronomical research continues, the close relationship between the scientific and the artistic will remain as close as it has been for the last 17,000 years."
The trouble with the universe — or one of the troubles, anyhow — is that it's hard to get a handle on its dimensions. The distances, sizes, velocities and times are so far beyond our daily trek to work that it's easy to ignore what wonders surround us. Which is why we need Magnitude (Black Dog & Leventhal, $27.99), by NASA's Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand. Together with the exceeding clever illustrator Katie Peek, Watzke and Arcand explain the incomprehensible in delightfully comprehensible images and text. Using a logarithmic scale (helpfully explained in the preface) and cartoon illustrations, "Magnitude" lays out the relative volume of, say, a mouse's lungs, an Olympic swimming pool, the Earth and the Milky Way galaxy. A series on speed takes us from the apparent stillness of grass growing to the blur of a cheetah running to the roar of a jet flying and finally to the speed of light. Other sections on pressure, energy and time are equally enlightening.
The astronomically large objects of the universe are no easier to grasp than the atomically small particles of matter. That's where Ben Still comes in, carrying a box of Legos. A British physicist with a knack for explaining abstract concepts, Still is the author of Particle Physics Brick by Brick (Firefly, $24.95), forthcoming this spring. He starts by matching the weird properties and interactions described by the Standard Model of particle physics with the perfectly ordinary blocks of a collection of Legos. Quarks and leptons, bluons and charms are assigned to various colors and combinations of plastic bricks. Once you've got that system in mind, hang on: Still races off to illustrate the Big Bang, the birth of stars, electromagnetism and all matter of fantastical-sounding phenomenon, like mesons and beta decay. "Given enough plastic bricks, the rules in this book and enough time," Still concludes, "one might imagine that a plastic Universe could be built by us, brick by brick." Remember that the next time you accidentally step on one barefoot.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.