Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of our Sun by Leon Golub and Jay M Pasachoff

nearest starThe 380,000,000,000,000,000,000 megawatt furnace…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the excitement of modern cosmology – when we can see back almost to the Big Bang itself, when we are discovering exoplanets with the capacity to sustain life, when mankind has just taken its first tentative robotic steps beyond the solar system – it can be easy to forget how much there still is to learn about the objects closer to hand. In this book, the authors set out to explain what we know, and what we don’t, about our own star, the Sun, and about its effects on us in the past, present and future. Originally published in 2001, this 2014 edition has been fully updated to take account of the most current knowledge on the subject. The book is presented as a series of eight chapters, each looking at a separate aspect of the science of the Sun.

The first three chapters provide a general introduction to the Sun, explaining its origins and impact on the development of life here on Earth. The authors don’t just tell us what we know, however; they also tell us how we know it, showing how the science has gradually developed from naked eye observations through to the hugely sophisticated and complex space observatories we have become almost blasé about today. This is quite a technical book in parts, so there’s a lot of information on how these machines are built and controlled, even down to the size of lenses and lengths of exposures in the photography of the Sun. The fourth chapter takes us one step further, explaining the development of scientific methods to allow us to ‘see’ those things beyond our visual capacity and ‘look’ inside the Sun.

The Moon partially eclipsing the Sun - imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO)
The Moon partially eclipsing the Sun – imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO)

The four remaining chapters each look in depth at a separate subject: eclipses, space missions, the effects of the Sun on Earth climate, and space weather. As is often the case with scientific books, the authors’ desire to inspire enthusiasm for their subject comes through very clearly in these chapters. As well as describing the complexities of cutting edge solar physics, they take the time to describe, for example, how an amateur photographer should go about getting the best photos of an eclipse with standard equipment. Solar winds, auroras, carbon-dating, even how winds are affected by the Sun, influencing trade routes throughout history – all of these diverse subjects and more find a place in here. And in the chapter on Earth climate, they explain some of the science that allows scientists to differentiate between the natural effects of solar cycles and the actions of mankind on the current trend of global warming.

Aurora Borealis  © Philippe Moussette (Obs. Mont Cosmos)
Aurora Borealis
© Philippe Moussette (Obs. Mont Cosmos)

Popular science books have to tread a fine line between being so simplified that they irritate anyone with any level of scientific education or being so ‘sciency’ that they lose the novice completely. This book steps over that line several times in the direction of too sciency for this uneducated reader. While the authors carefully avoid bringing in too many mathematical formulae etc., they do use fairly technical language a lot of the time and though they are very good at explaining a technical term on first usage, they then assume the reader will remember that concept chapters later. I don’t know about other casual science readers but I really don’t take in scientific concepts that easily and found that more and more I was having to backtrack or go to the (very useful) glossary of terms at the back – or, being something of a lazy reader, beginning to skip the passages that would have required too much work. That’s not a fault of the book – I would not for one moment suggest that all science books should be written simplistically enough for the novice. But I would say that this book is probably more suited to someone with an existing familiarity with physics to at least high school standards. I was a little hampered by the fact that in the ARC copy I was given to review many of the graphs were not included – I would think they would probably have been very helpful in clarifying some of the more complex stuff. (Why do publishers give out ARCs of scientific books before they are complete? I find that nearly as baffling a concept as relativity.)

Full disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO - NASA
Full disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO – NASA

Having said all that, despite getting lost along the way a few times, I learned a lot from the book and on the whole found it an enjoyable and very informative read. So highly recommended to anyone with a reasonable basic knowledge of physics or to anyone who, like me, is happy to skim through the more difficult bits and enjoy the rest.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

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28 thoughts on “Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of our Sun by Leon Golub and Jay M Pasachoff

  1. Fascinating subject and Review. I believe this book has an end-of-month release date for anyone interested..Thanks for your insight, as always.

    • Thanks, Wordman! You’re right about the publication date – in fact in the US the new edition seems to have been set for the end of March, but for some reason the publishers were pushing to get the reviews out early on this one. Thanks for mentioning it – I should really have put the publication dates in the review.

  2. FictionFan – Sounds like this one is a challenging read, but I mean that in a good way. As you say, there is so very much we don’t know about our universe, and I always respect authors who try to help us understand that. We need to keep asking questions and we need to keep boldly going… I also respect authors who in their turn respect readers by not trivialising complicated things. Definitely sounds a fascinating read.

    • It is a fascinating read, and I think there’s a place in the market for science books aimed at different levels of readers. Not that my lack of knowledge prevented me from gaining quite a lot from this one – enthusiastic science writers can always inspire me to struggle through the bits that I don’t quite understand…

  3. Nice review!

    The eclipse of the sun reminds this professor of a Twain book that FEF hasn’t read yet…

    I think that the sun will cease to shine any day now. And I wish global warming was working a bit better–it’s global cooling over here!

    • Oh, I really hoped this one might have got ‘stellar’! 😉

      What book? Eclipses always make me think of KSM.

      In Scotland, the sun ceased to shine round about 1974 I think – it’s rained ever since. In fact, half of England seems to be flooded at the moment. It does seem unfair that global warming is just making it colder and wetter here…

      • 😆 No, not until you read MT… more often, that is.

        Connecticut Yankee. You must read it. I think I’m in the story.

        You should move to the US then…much balmier. (I wonder if the Big Bang could turn me into Hector?)

        • Very mean C-W-W! Huck Finn soon, I promise!

          I must, but then I must read HF, Innocents Abroad and Puddenhead Wilson too… Is the Professor the King?

          No, I’d never master the language. (The Professor is already better than Hector…did Hector ever make me laugh?)

  4. You? Lazy??? Oh I think not! I only really have the patience to wade through complex terminology when the science matter is biology, rather than cosmology. Thinking in the micro is easier than the macro, since we contain the micro, but are only a micro of the macro. Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!! (or just fancy fluff, as you will!

    • Well, thank you! But I must own up to having developed an amazingly effective technique of just skipping over the words I don’t understand… 😉

      Ah no, macro all the way for me – I don’t want to know what goes on in my innards. I’d rather worry about the sun exploding in 5 billion years than all the things that could go wrong (or indeed have already gone wrong!) with my own bits and pieces…

  5. Great review. All this good non-fiction is getting in the way of my rubbish-reading – maybe I’ll have to start a reading timetable!

    • Not wishing to be rude, but you might find you struggle with this one like I did. It’s definitely more sciency than most of the science books I’ve read recently.

      No, no, don’t do it! I spend so much time planning my reading these days that I rarely have any time to actually read! 😉

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