Despite some information overload, this is an irresistible subject, and readers will find Tasker’s richly detailed account...

THE PLANET FACTORY

EXOPLANETS AND THE SEARCH FOR A SECOND EARTH

An astronomical journey that explores how our cosmos “is an unseen creature that we are struggling to understand through the small sections we have uncovered.”

Headlines greeted the 1995 discovery of the first planet circling another sunlike star. The number now approaches 4,000, and more continue to turn up. Astrophysicist Tasker (Solar System Science/Hokkaido Univ.) joins the steady stream of authors eager to tell the story. After reviewing the dazzling technology required to detect planets millions of times further out than Pluto, she explains that planets form along with their sun from a whirling disc of gas and dust. Gravity and heat from the young sun eliminate nearby gas, so inner planets are small and rocky. Further out, gas and unvaporized ice remain, resulting in giant planets with thick atmospheres. Our system—four small, rocky inner planets and four immense, gassy outer planets in symmetrical orbits—gave astronomers confidence in their explanations, until exoplanets destroyed it. The first discoveries were huge “hot Jupiters” so close to parent stars that they orbited in a few days. Equally confusing were “super-earths,” with wildly varying sizes, atmospheres, and orbits. Well-behaved systems like ours barely exist. Everyone yearns to find another planet suitable for life, which would be similar to ours and at a distance from its sun where the temperature allows liquid water to exist. Many are turning up, but Tasker, no Pollyanna, reminds readers that Venus, Mars, and the moon are also in our sun’s temperate zone, and scientists still debate why Earth seems unique. An active researcher, the author clearly knows nearly everything about extrasolar planets, so readers will encounter fascinating details but also learn perhaps more than they want to know about star behavior and planetary formation and evolution.

Despite some information overload, this is an irresistible subject, and readers will find Tasker’s richly detailed account entirely satisfactory—until events overtake it in a few years.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4729-1772-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

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A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

LETTERS FROM AN ASTROPHYSICIST

Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, etc.) receives a great deal of mail, and this slim volume collects his responses and other scraps of writing.

The prolific science commentator and bestselling author, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers few surprises and much admirable commentary. Readers may suspect that most of these letters date from the author’s earlier years when, a newly minted celebrity, he still thrilled that many of his audience were pouring out their hearts. Consequently, unlike more hardened colleagues, he sought to address their concerns. As years passed, suspecting that many had no interest in tapping his expertise or entering into an intelligent give and take, he undoubtedly made greater use of the waste basket. Tyson eschews pure fan letters, but many of these selections are full of compliments as a prelude to asking advice, pointing out mistakes, proclaiming opposing beliefs, or denouncing him. Readers will also encounter some earnest op-ed pieces and his eyewitness account of 9/11. “I consider myself emotionally strong,” he writes. “What I bore witness to, however, was especially upsetting, with indelible images of horror that will not soon leave my mind.” To crackpots, he gently repeats facts that almost everyone except crackpots accept. Those who have seen ghosts, dead relatives, and Bigfoot learn that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Tyson points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so confirmation that a light in the sky represents an alien spacecraft requires more than a photograph. Again and again he defends “science,” and his criteria—observation, repeatable experiments, honest discourse, peer review—are not controversial but will remain easy for zealots to dismiss. Among the instances of “hate mail” and “science deniers,” the author also discusses philosophy, parenting, and schooling.

A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00331-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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