… books for grown ups

Over more than two decades in publishing I’ve written a bunch of books for adults on subjects encompassing Life, the Universe, and (quite literally!) Everything. These are some of the highlights…

What Shape is Space?

In 2018 I had the pleasure of writing one of the launch titles for Thames & Hudson’s new flagship series The Big Idea – a series of compact but authoritative guides to contemporary questions, edited by Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society of Arts.

Reviewing for The Sky At Night Magazine, that nice Ben Gilliland wrote: “Engaging … there is a great deal to recommend about Sparrow s book for those wanting an approachable primer to this hugely complex question”, while the good folks at SF2 Concatenation described it as “An invaluable resource … The explanations are clear, inspiring and memorable, and the information laid out in an easy-to-follow narrative. Definitely recommended.” Thanks guys!

The Genius Test

Much of 2017 was devoted to writing this exhaustive (and exhausting!) book. Wayne Davies at Quercus are up with the series concept and wanted to launch it with an overarching title that would run the gamut of human knowledge from biology, cosmology and maths to arts, economics and philosophy.

My wide range of interests and years of experience editing the In Minutes and 50 Ideas series meant we agreed I should be the author, and I enjoyed striking out in some new directions and putting much of the knowledge I’d absorbed in my years of packaging and editorial work to good use. Sadly it didn’t set the bestseller charts alight, but it’s a book of which I’m still intensely proud!

Mars: A New View of the Red Planet

I’ve always had a fascination for Mars, and leapt at the chance of putting together a book that would finally do the Red Planet justice, combining the stunning views provided by orbiting space probes and rovers with the latest scientific knowledge.

Initially published in the same ‘Quercus giant’ format as my previous Cosmos book, Mars gave us a chance to reproduce NASA and ESA imagery at a scale capable of doing it justice. The huge scope of the book, meanwhile, allowed me to tell the story of our obsession with Mars from the earliest times to the latest space probes, alongside a comprehensive account of its planetary history and major geographical features.

The Universe in 100 Key Discoveries

In a nice change of pace, this was a book in which text, rather than pictures, took the lead. Giving a comprehensive account of our changing understanding of the Universe from ancient times to the most recent breakthroughs involved some exhaustive research and a fair amount of squeezing quarts into pint pots, but the result was well worth the effort, and a reminder of how fast-moving astronomy can be – many of the topics covered here would have been unimaginable back in my undergraduate days! Although of course research continues to move on apace, I’m still very proud of this book as a survey of the ‘state-of-the-art’ at the time of writing, and it remains one of my best-reviewed titles on Amazon.

The Natural World Close-Up

Back in 2011, Quercus launched a short series of close-up photography books covering popular science subjects. Alongside the inevitable(!) Cosmos Close-Up, I enjoyed a change of pace writing this book on the Natural World, covering everything from geology to plants and animals. Despite my ‘hard science’ background in astronomy and physics, I’ve always been equally fascinated by the world around us and natural history in particular.

Hubble: Window on the Universe

The wealth of beautiful pictures coming from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is a gift for any publisher or astronomy author, and by 2010 it was clear that space imaging had taken another quantum leap since the early 2000s. Rather than just put together another picture gallery, however, this large-format book also aimed to celebrate the remarkable machine providing the images. Published for the 20th Anniversary of the HST’s launch, we updated it five years later for a Legacy Edition with new images and info on the final space shuttle servicing mission. Thankfully, another five years later, Hubble is still going strong!

The Stargazer’s Handbook

This star atlas, produced for Quercus, made use of star mapping computer programs and scripts that I had originally developed for our work on DK’s Universe. The idea was to take things to another level by displaying photorealistic simulations of individual constellations alongside more traditional star charts, with individual objects of interest explored in more detail on follow-up spreads. We subsequently reworked the concept into a more manageable paperback format for use in the field.

Fortune and Glory

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology and ancient history (somewhere off in the multiverse there’s an alternate me who went down that academic path rather than the astronomical one) and in 2008 I successfully pitched this book about the ‘heroic age’ of archaeology to David & Charles (there was, as you might recall from the cover, an Indiana Jones movie out at the time!). Sadly, the publishers wouldn’t let me write the whole shebang (the curse of the eclectic author!), so we successfully recruited Douglas Palmer and Nicholas James as co-writers, and I was able to concentrate on telling the exciting tales of Egypt, Babylonia and the Holy Land. I’m still planning to revisit the thrilling adventures of Austen Henry Layard some day…

Spaceflight: The Complete Story from Sputnik to Shuttle – and Beyond

Finally succumbing to prolonged sleeve-tugging from yours truly, the good folks at Dorling Kindersley commissioned this authoritative history of the Space Age in time for the 50th Anniversary of Sputnik 1 in 2007. I was thrilled to write the whole thing (a rare responsibility on a DK project of this size), and worked with the in-house team and out-of-house packagers to put the whole thing together (including a memorable US road trip to Huntsville and the Space Coast). Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, the end result is still probably the most comprehensive and beautiful book of its kind, and having the one and only Buzz Aldrin supply an introduction was just the icing on the cake. I’m delighted to say that I’ve recently finished updates and new material for a 2nd edition, covering more than a decade of new developments, to coincide with the 2019 anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings.

Cosmos: A Feld Guide

This truly enormous book made quite a splash when it was first published in 2006, setting a new benchmark for high-quality illustrated books and helping to establish ‘new kid on the block’ Quercus books as a force to be reckoned with. Nic Cheetham, who I had worked with at Weidenfeld, recruited me to iron out the structure and write the text, while award-winning agency Grade Design delivered stunning minimalistic layouts that contributed hugely to the book’s impact – too bad I agreed to a flat fee for this one! A couple of years after initial publication, we reprinted with a more colourful jacket (shown here) and an added introduction from the wonderful Dava Sobel, and in 2011 we gave the book a wholesale revamp for its 2nd edition.

Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide

During the early 2000s, I had the pleasure of working as an editor on several of Dorling Kindersley’s blockbuster reference titles, such as Animal, Earth and Ship. Seeing an opportunity for a similarly comprehensive astronomy title, I put together rough outline contents and proposals that culminated in the go-ahead for this 512-page monster. Universe, since reprinted and updated more times than I can recall, covers everything from the origins of the solar system to the edge of the cosmos, and as is usual on projects of this size, ended up as a multi-author work. As well as writing a couple of major sections and consulting on others, I also worked with my designer colleague Tim Brown to supply a comprehensive set of constellation and star maps – the origins of our later Pikaia partnership.

The Universe and How to See It

My first ‘proper’ book came about as the result of persistent lobbying during a freelance editorial stint at Marshall Editions. I’d always wanted to combine the observational and theoretical sides of astronomy in a book that not only pointed out interesting objects in the sky, but also explained their true nature, and described how our visual observations of them lead through reasoning to a theoretical understanding. This book was a first stab at that concept, and one that I still think worked out pretty well, if I say so myself…