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Rebel Star - Colin Stuart ****

It would only be fair to expect that we knew everything there is to know about our friendly neighbourhood star, the Sun. After all, without it we certainly wouldn't be here, it's extremely close in astronomical turns and it has been studied for millennia. Yet, as Colin Stuart reveals, there's plenty we still don't know - and of the bits we do apparently know, I was amazed how much was new to me.

I suspect that solar missions and research just don't get the same level of media coverage as, say, missions to Mars with the potential for long-term manned exploration. We are, after all, never going to send people to the Sun. But there are some great stories about attempts to find out more about what is, inevitably, an inhospitable environment. So, for example, Stuart tells the fascinating tale of the Solor and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission. Launched at the end of 1995, a human error turned the satellite into a $1 billion piece of space junk... or so it seemed. The efforts to get it back going and the final outcome make great reading.

The first part of the book fills in the history of our understanding of the Sun and how it works, while more of the rest covers areas where research is still current and our understanding still remains partial. A lot of this part concentrates on what's going on in the Sun's outer layers and the solar wind and coronal mass ejections that are propelled out from it, sometimes in our direction, which has can have a potentially dire impact on a world dependent on electronics and satellites.

I learned a lot here, and Stuart's enthusiasm is clear. If I have a negative it's that this enthusiasm perhaps carries him away sometimes to give us rather more detail on some of the more abstruse aspects of the complex electromagnetic phenomena that shape sunspots, produce solar flares and more. Similarly, although the likes of Alfven waves and magnetohydrodynamics are essential in getting an understanding what's going on we get, perhaps, a little too much detail for a book aimed at a general audience.

However, if things do get a little over-detailed sometimes, we're soon back to finding out about new and interesting discoveries. Stuart starts most chapters with a scene-setting narrative and throughout the book is packed with information and delights.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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