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Guidebook for armchair star travelers

Larousse Astronomy, Edited by Philippe de la Cotardi`ere. New York: Facts on File. 326 pp. Illustrated. $35. If you are up around midnight this month you might notice Jupiter rising. The ancients gave this planet the name of the ruler of Olympus. It is the most massive of the sun's planets, 318.95 times the mass of Earth and nearly 2.5 times the sum of all the sun's other planets together. When observed through a telescope, Jupiter's disk has a striped appearance and one great red spot in its Southern Hemisphere. High-resolution photography of that region from space probes reveals a very dynamic swirling red spot. Picking up Philippe de la Cotardi`ere's ``Larousse Astronomy,'' one finds:

``Discovered in 1664 by the Briton Robert Hooke and observed soon after by Jean Dominique Cassini, this strange oval formation ... is visible in Jupiter's Southern Hemisphere...

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``It has become clear that what is involved is a gigantic atmospheric vortex, as the American Gerald Kuiper first suggested. ... This hypothesis explains the existence of smaller spots having otherwise more or less similar characteristics and that have been seen in other bright regions of Jupiter. However, these spots often are ephemeral, and the permanent nature of the great red spot remains to be explained....''

With beautiful pictures to illustrate the text, and detailed captions - such as the one just quoted in part - to engage the browser, this book will well serve its owners on their coffee tables and in quiet moments, when they browse through the infinite reaches of astronomy. More than just satisfying occasional curiosity, ``Larousse Astronomy'' leads one to the unknown and to what the amateur astronomer can do.

Amateur observations have long contributed to the progress of astronomy, both in interesting future professional astronomers and in supplying observations.

Jean-Louis Pons (1761-1831), began his career as a custodian at Marseille Observatory but, through lessons from the various directors of the observatory, went on to a career in astronomy - discovering 31 comets himself. Modern amateur astronomer William Bradfield from Australia identified 10 comets between 1972 and 1980.

``Larousse Astronomy'' has numerous asides meant for the amateur, detailing how to begin making meaningful observations. There are some areas where the amateur's work is not only possible but actually needed for the future development of astronomy.

The book is divided into four parts. The first covers the history of astronomy and the instruments used today to carry out the research that is unlocking some of the secrets of the stars. The second part deals with our own solar system, for example, Jupiter and Mars. With the essay on each planet is a short section on observations accessible to the amateur astronomer. The third part describes the structure and evolution of the stars. Part 4 discusses galaxies and the ultimate question of life elsewhere in the universe.

The Larousse name and astronomy have long been associated with both excellent photography and excellent writing. The current edition is beautifully illustrated and attractively presented. By its own account it is a book designed for general readers.

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As the introduction states, ``This work aims to present a contemporary and complete panorama of the universe - incorporating the most recent discoveries - for everyone...''

Paul A. Robinson Jr. is a staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.