Book Review: Voyages to the Stars and Galaxies

Texts on general courses need to fulfill two goals; they must explain the details, and they must capture the imagination. Those contemplating sticking their toe into the pool of astronomy could understandably get nervous. This field has contributions made from most of the greatest thinkers of our species. In addition, our primitive five senses are woefully inadequate to peel back the shrouds of astronomical mystery. Today, professionals tell tales of trying to contact aliens, go through a spacetime continuum, or detect dark energy. They rely on state-of-the-art technology using ultimate processing power and quirky algorithms to make sense of what the uninitiated would consider random patterns. Yet, in starting from the beginning and keeping the information succinct, an introductory text can supply adequate elucidation and perhaps entice another neophyte to continue past the general level.

The team of Fraknoi, Morrison and Wolff, in their textbook, meet both these goals. For astronomy, they offer completeness. To start, there’s the perspective of astrology based solidly in history. Then they proceed down the chronological path bringing in each contributor and the significant contributions. Orbits, geocentricity, eclipses and tides lay the ground work. However, the text quickly proceeds to the electromagnetic spectrum, radio telescopes, nuclear chemistry and the basis of today’s observation, that is, star types, distances and life attributes. The end brings the reader to current perceptions on relativity, cosmology, and astrobiology. There is no doubt that the authors explain the details, though for the most part they focus on data rather than on rationale.

Trying to capture an imagination without knowing the person is much more nebulous a task. Clearly, the authors assume the reader has no technical background. The powers of ten mathematics notation is the most complex math and has two solid descriptions, one in the text and the other in the appendices. Photographs, diagrams, historical vignettes and charts ease the way forward for those not used to contemplating quantitative descriptions. Analogies appear throughout. For example, did you know the density of a neutron star is similar to squeezing all the people on Earth into the volume of a single rain drop? Lastly, the accompanying CD, with the student edition of The Sky, gives many opportunities to take the data in the text and compare it to night time observations for any latitude or longitude within a time of 10 000 years. If the student truly has interest in astronomy, then this text should capture their imagination, at least until the end of the course.

As a text, this book aims solidly for course work. Each significant subject of astronomy has its own chapter. The chapter layout starts with the history, emphasizing the practitioners, next the current activity emphasizing the equipment, and then ends with expectations emphasizing the research thrusts. At the conclusion of each chapter, a summary, list of group activities, review questions and contemplative questions provide lots of study material. In a unique step, the authors have set up an adoption program whereby they keep all registered users up to date on new material. They also have a help hot line (actually email line) where they promise to quickly answer any (student or lecturer) question regarding this course work.

Given that this version is the third edition, it should and does flow smoothly. Chapters stand on their own. Different styles emerge, likely due to the different authors, but no problems result. The information is current, though it can be necessarily vague, such as the topic on our universe’s size. Also, like most texts, the contents revolves around data and is perfect for digesting and regurgitation. The sparse amount of theory is appropriate for a general introductory text.

September is the time for school and the show of Sagittarius in the night sky. School has surprises but so does Sagittarius. Did you know that within the boundaries of this constellation there lies a galaxy that’s about to get eaten up by our own Milky Way? Read the book Voyages to the Stars and Galaxies by Andrew Fraknoi, David Morrison, and SidneyWolff to learn about the constellations, stars and their marvellously unique and sometimes hungry properties. Anthropic or not, you’ll see that we’re in one amazing universe.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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