Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Exploding Superstars

Exploding Superstars: Understanding Supernovae and Gamma Ray Bursts by Alain Mazure and Stephane Basa is a very well-written and interesting book, somewhat marred by flaws which I prefer to attribute to the evil that has come to dominate Springer. If you prefer to avoid the rant and get to the recommendation, skip the next paragraph.

The book is a translation from the French original, and, so far as I can tell, excellently done, but the title is a bit misleading. Although Supernovae and Gamma-Ray Bursts are prominently featured, the real subject is cosmology, as indicated the the original French title, which was something like "the Universe in all its glory". The text makes frequent mention of twenty or so color plates - these do not make an appearance in this English edition - a considerable loss. There are also many dozens of figures and diagrams many of which appear to have originally been done in color but have been reproduced by some idiotic process which destroys detail and contrast, sometimes making them all but unintelligible.

Now to some of the virtues: Clear and enthusiastic text with mostly non-mathematical descriptions of what the modern science of cosmology has learned. The numerous diagrams, despite the flaws detailed above, clarify and explain many key points. There is also a mathematical appendix, which very briefly summarizes many of the key physical points. Another innovation which impressed me was that instead of a bibliography it includes with a webliography, a list of web sites with relevant material keyed to the chapters.

The story that the book tells is that of the interlocking pieces of evidence that give rise to what is now called the "Concordance Model" of our cosmos. It's a story that with a beginning, some possible endings, and wealth of fascinating details. Regular readers of this blog probably know the principal underpinnings: the Hubble expansion, the Cosmological Microwave Background radiation, Einstein's general relativistic theory of gravity, the very large scale uniformity of the cosmos, the apparent flatness of the cosmos at the largest scales, and the multiple lines of evidence indicating that much of the energy and matter in the universe is "dark".

It's a scientific mystery story of the first order, and even though much of the plot has been revealed, many deep mysteries remain: what is the nature of dark matter and dark energy, what physics is responsible for the fact that we live in a matter rather than anti-matter universe, and what led to the Big Bang itself?