Goldilocks goes cosmic

Astrophysical Techniques - The Physics of the Interstellar Medium - Introductory Astronomy
March 12, 1999

Textbooks should conform to the Goldilocks convention. They should not be too long, because they then contain far too much material beyond the limited confines of the specific university course. They should not be too short because they are then not leading the student carefully, step by step, through the details of the subject. They should be just right. Also they should not be too hard. Nor should they be too easy.

Introductory Astronomy conforms perfectly to the Goldilocks convention so far as length and depth are concerned. Like all good textbooks it is built on the firm foundations of a set of well-used lecture notes, coupled with a host of problems and worked answers that have been tried and tested on many student cohorts. It is designed to introduce students to the physical workings of the cosmos, so, even though it is well illustrated and contains many useful diagrams and graphs, it has none of the expensive over-glossy multicoloured aspects of many of the recent universal guidebooks and fact files that lade astronomers' coffee-tables.

The book is written in a very accessible narrative style. It is also extremely well planned. So, unlike many textbooks, students are expected to start at the beginning, and proceed steadily to the end. On the way they are encouraged to answer a host of posed questions, using a liberal sprinkling of worked examples as a guide.

The book starts at planet earth, and considers the nature of the electromagnetic waves we receive, and the complications produced by the fact that the planet is both spinning and orbiting. The students then blast off into space and overviews of the bodies in the solar system. Due weight is given to the Sun, this being the only star that we really know something about. The characteristics and life histories of other stars are then examined. The grouping of stars into clusters and galaxies is followed by a discussion of the big question: where did the universe come from and how it is all going to end?

Introductory Astronomy is an exemplary first-year university textbook. In fact, in my many years at the astronomical chalk-face of tertiary education, I have come across no better.

Astrophysical Techniques is a revised version of an old favourite first published in 1984. It is an up-to-date, coherent account of the many instruments and techniques used in modern observational astronomy. Optical and infrared detectors, apparatus for X-ray and gamma-ray satellites, receivers for radio and microwave telescopes, and instruments to investigate neutrons and gravitons are all considered in detail, as are such techniques as photography, electronic imaging, interferometry, radar, photometry, spectroscopy and magnetometry. The book is thorough and is accurately aimed at the undergraduate who likes a good long read.

The Physics of the Interstellar Medium is the second edition of a book first published in 1980 in the Institute of Physics graduate series in astronomy. It is a superb review of the plethora of complicated physical processes that act at both very small and very large scales on the gases, plasmas and dust particles that swirl through the immense volume of space between the stars.

David Hughes is reader in astronomy, University of Sheffield.

Astrophysical Techniques

Author - C. R. Kitchin
ISBN - 0 7503 0497 9 and 0498 7
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing
Price - £100.00 and £19.95
Pages - 474

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