June 5, 2020

Review: How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form? By Abraham Loeb.

One of the crucial questions in modern cosmology is: why is there anything at all? Why are we here to admire the cosmos, and create books and blogs about how clever we are to figure it all out? Why didn’t the early universe promptly annihilate itself in a massive matter/anti-matter collision?

Enter this week’s review of How Did the First Stars & Galaxies Form? by Abraham Loeb. Out August 2010 from Princeton University Press, Galaxies delves into that crucial time from the evolution of the primordial universe through first re-ionization to the familiar shinning stelliferous era that we see today. Mr. Loeb is a professor of astronomy and the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard University. He has been prominent around the web as of late, presenting the latest discovery of the Chandra X-ray observatory on NASA TV of the remnant of Supernova 1979c, recently revealed as one of the youngest black holes known. Mr. Loeb not only gives a concise introduction to cosmology, but also presents his personal journey and reflections along with his scientific findings. One our favorite anecdotes are of viewing the Milky Way from down under in Tasmania. Having crossed the equator several times ourselves, I can attest that familiar view from our northern hemisphere vantage point simply doesn’t do our home galaxy justice.

One caveat is in order; unlike Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time, Galaxies doesn’t back away from the “Mathiness”… but for those who walked away from other landmark works like A Brief History or The Five Ages of the Universe thinking “It could’ve been mathier…” This might be a good thing.

The author provides an excellent snapshot both of the state of the universe and the maturation of the field of cosmology as a whole. Sure, you may call on a plumber more frequently than a cosmologist, but cosmologists get to play with the deep questions that really get the mental juices flowing. In addition to explaining the processes that got the first stellar fusion furnaces shinning, Galaxies touches on some of the sobering implications of recent research. For example, not only is our Milky Way on a head on collision course with the Andromeda galaxy, (merging into Milkomeda but eventually our universe will expand to a point that no other galaxies will be visible at all! The author even touches on some interesting SETI issues, noting that the first radio signals humanity sent out that were detectable over interstellar distances were military radar signals used during World War II… will any interstellar races be militant as well? Does it always follow that an intelligent species is by nature derived from top predators?

Read How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form? Either to gain a better grounding in modern cosmology or just to update yourself on the state of the universe and the big questions out there. As more hard data on exotic beasties such as gamma-ray bursts and quasars trickles in, we gain a little better knowledge of where we are, where we came from, and where we may be headed… the Golden Age of Cosmology is truly upon us!








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