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The assorted characters in this ""monstrous"" drama are sometimes real, sometimes mythical, sometimes speculative. Always, however, they are described with the verve and intelligence we have come to expect from astronomer Paolo Maffei. His earlier popularization, Beyond the Moon (1978), was distinguished by a combination of you-are-there in the solar system and a no-nonsense baptism into the equations and laws of astrophysics. Here the catalogue of objects explored is more esoteric, and a higher order of knowledge is expected of the reader. Maffei begins with objects nearby, moves to objects within the galaxy, and finally explores the far-reaching clusters of galaxies at the limits of the universe. Thus the journey begins with a discussion of the comets that frightened our ancestors; the dispute over the existence of Vulcan, a conjectured planet of Mercury; and some very real nebulae, rings, novae, supernovae--and even a possible super-supernovae whose explosion 65 million years ago offers yet another explanation of the dramatic end of the dinosaurs. Next come neutron stars and pulsars, black holes, white holes, quasars, and other peculiar and very active ""sources"" in the skies, including the star Eta Carinae, which Maffei describes as the most extraordinary and puzzling star--if indeed it is a star--in the galaxy. He ends with a ""monster"" that's mysteriously undetectable--the socalled ""bidden"" mass of distant galactic clusters. (The calculated mass for the whole cluster is greater than the sum of the parts.) Could this mass be found in black holes? or possibly in black dwarfs? Throughout the text Maffei maintains an air of objectivity, always laying out the purely descriptive and historical groundwork carefully before plunging into current data and explanations. Well-tempered and lively.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1980
Publisher: MIT Press