Skip to main content

Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction - James Binney ****

For many readers, the very word ‘astrophysics’ is a daunting one. That’s ironic, because astronomy is one of the most popular of popular-science subjects, and it’s almost 100% applied physics. You can’t understand planetary orbits without invoking the theory of gravity; you can’t understand how stars shine without invoking nuclear fusion; you can’t understand a galaxy’s spiral arms without invoking the physics of waves. Yet apart from a few exotic topics like black holes and dark matter, the crucial role played by physics is all too often glossed over in popular astronomy books.

So this ‘Very Short Introduction’ is a welcome antidote to all that. It would be ideal for a reader who is already keen on astronomy, and has some basic school-level physics, who wants to see how the two fit together. Most amateur astronomers will have heard of ‘main sequence stars’ and the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, but this book shows you how the mysteries of stellar evolution all have their roots in solid physical principles like gravitation, nuclear fusion, heat convection and black-body radiation. 

Another thing that comes across is that, although the universe is very big, there really aren’t that many laws of physics. So the same physics gets used over and over at different scales – with, for example, the same principle of ‘conservation of angular momentum’ shaping the structure of the solar system, black hole accretion discs and entire galaxies. Other areas of physics, which may not be very prominent here on Earth, really come into their own in an astronomical context. This applies most obviously to relativity – both the special and general theories – which can explain a whole range of phenomena from the stability of the solar system to cosmic rays and gravitational lenses.

A short, wide-ranging book like this is always going to lack depth, but that’s not a bad thing with a potentially heavy subject like this one – especially when, as in this case, the author is a professor of astrophysics. Fortunately James Binney doesn’t try to blind readers with science, but he doesn’t talk down to them either. That’s probably a good thing, too, since I suspect the very title of the book is going to have a self-selection effect on its readership. The sort of people who buy this book won’t want to be talked down to.

A few months ago it was mentioned to me that these OUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ books tend to be dry summaries rather than narrative-driven. That’s pretty much the case here. Essentially the author presents a long list of facts, rather than posing a series of rhetorical questions (of the sort the reader might have) and then answering them, or showing how they were tackled in a historical context. I think I might have liked that better, but I can’t mark the book down on that account because it’s obvious that it is simply sticking to the house style for the series. Even so, it’s an enjoyably easy read, and a long way from being a stodgy textbook – I mean, what textbook would tell you the Galaxy contains ‘zillions of dark-matter particles’?


Paperback:  

Kindle 
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…