February 16th, 2008


The final frontier ...

It was one of those unintentional parallels when I opted to follow up the previous book with S. Alan Stern's Our Universe: The Thrill of Extragalactic Exploration, as, while having nothing at all in common in topic, they're oddly similar in approach, each largely being a look at the researchers doing the science in a particular area. Our Universe differs in being contributions by nine different scientists discussing how they got to what they're doing, and where they see it going. Frankly, although this is not outright suggested in the book, I suspect that this was intended for highschool students who might be looking at going to college for astrophysics, as each of its authors takes pains to show how their own educational paths took them to their present positions. This is not to say that the material in this has been "dumbed down", but there are passages that are "Boston" in relation to the "black coffee" of other books I've recently read on the subject.

This approach, however, does open up some fascinating windows into the day-to-day concerns of astronomers that might not have found their way into other narratives, things like the emotional rollercoaster of having parts of a years-in-development space probe going bad, and the triumph of finding "work arounds" that would allow for it to still function ... let alone some of the challenges of a life living on research grants awaiting an eventual tenured university position!

Subjects discussed include "probing the Universe's large-scale structure", looking back in time via a search for the most distant detectable galaxies, super-massive black holes, gamma-ray bursts, "dark matter and the discovery of galactic halos", and a fascinating look at (something that I'd never heard of before) the very diffuse "LSB (low surface brightness) Galaxies", some of which are huge ("Malin 1" is 20x the size of our own galaxy).

Coming as it does from Cambridge University Press, I assume that this 2001 book provides a pretty good snapshot of the various disciplines discussed at that point in time. While not extensively illustrated, it does feature some interesting deep-sky photographs, charts, and diagrams, and each author provides some "suggested reading" on their subject, and sometimes links for other resources on the web.

Again, while I suspect that this book was conceived of as an "introduction to an exciting career in astrophysics" for highschool students, there is quite a lot of eye-opening material here, an it would be a decent basic book for anybody who was not overly familiar with the subject area ... and, as noted, there were certainly a number of things in here which I'd never encountered in my on-going reading on these topics.


I guess I'll have to revise my "suspicions" on Our Universe ... I just pulled up its Amazon page and noted that its cover price is $50.00 (for a rather slim book), which pretty much screams "I'm a college text book!" (a scary thought, that, given my perceptions of it), and it is still in print, with Amazon asking a whopping $36.50 for it ... fortunately, their new/used vendors (which is where I got mine) have "like new" copies for as little as 1¢ (four bucks with shipping). Hey, pick up a 1¢ copy of this and not only get some decent information, but revel in the 99.98% savings (well, 92% after shipping)!

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