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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

    

Neutron Stars

by
Katia Moskvitch


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Neutron Stars



Title: Neutron Stars
Author: Katia Moskvitch
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2020
Length: 257 pages
Availability: Neutron Stars - US
Neutron Stars - UK
Neutron Stars - Canada
  • The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos
  • Includes several photographs and numerous color plates

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Our Assessment:

B : fine introduction to neutron stars -- and even better in presenting a picture of modern astronomy in practice

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 11/6/2020 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite the subject's complexity, Moskvitch skillfully explicates these bizarre celestial objects (.....) Breaking up the science, she vividly describes visits to research stations across the world (.....) Carl Sagan devotees will relish this portrayal of a new frontier in science." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Neutron stars may not be as spectacular as the supernovas that precede them and lead to their formation or have the aura of black holes, but they are remarkable in their own right: "small but ultra-dense and incredibly magnetic objects born out of the remnants of massive stars, several times more massive than our sun". Ultra-dense is right: their mass is somewhat greater than that of the sun -- the upper limit of neutron stars is around 2.17 solar masses; larger bodies form black holes -- but a diameter of only twenty kilometers or so; that's an incredible amount of mass compressed into such a small sphere -- and comes with magnetic and gravitational fields many, many orders of magnitude greater than are found on earth. In Neutron Stars Katia Moskvitch offers a winding tour through the history -- much of it very recent -- of the discovery and study of neutron stars as well as much of the (basic) science in an enjoyable overview of these unusual objects.
       Moskvitch begins with the 2017 detection of the collision of two neutron stars -- which she wrote about for Quanta Magazine at the time, in: Neutron-Star Collision Shakes Space-Time and Lights Up the Sky --, the first time any was captured. She notes that the neutron star-merger: "unleashed a bonanza of insights into so many cosmic enigmas, ever one of which would count as a great scientific advance", and she does go into much of this in her account. Beyond that, she argues: "the much bigger reward has been the dawn of a whole new way of observing the Universe, called multi-messenger astronomy" and Neutron Stars is very much an account of this, the present-day practice of astronomy and the different kind of 'telescopes' and other forms of detectors that can be used in combination to get, as it were, a bigger picture of the universe and what's (going on) in it. So, too, she focuses a great deal on personal stories, introducing many of the scientists in the field and their various roles in the discoveries and observations.
       The 2017 event was first detected -- as gravitational waves -- by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and Virgo, but Moskvitch also visits an impressive variety of far-flung sites and arrays that make other forms of measurements, notably radio telescopes, covering a wide variety of frequencies. She doesn't get to all of them -- the useful and very impressive NICER (the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) was presumably beyond the book's travel-budget -- but does give on-site impressions of quite a few, itself quite fascinating since they tend to be in remote and isolated locations and are remarkable structures (helpfully, she does provide nice color photographs of many). (Ironically, of course, few astronomers are actually ever on-site in most of these places, as most of the 'observations' can easily be handled nowadays from pretty much anywhere on earth.) Descriptions of what it feels like to be in the moving dish of the Parkes radio telescope aren't exactly on-point but add a nice dimension to the discussion -- as noted, as much about the practice of astronomy as the science of neutron stars.
       The science does come up, too -- not so much in a chronological account of theories, discoveries, and advances but chunk by chunk. As Moskvitch acknowledges, much still remains a mystery: "scientists have still not been able to pin down the inner workings of these ultra-dense objects". She does offer an overview of some possible explanations -- but the dominant story is of the actual observations (in their various forms) and the conclusions that can be drawn from them, an increasingly dense web (if nowhere near enough to figure it all out yet). And there are also secondary observations of interest, such as the precision of pulsars (rotating neutron stars), as: "pulses of radiation produced by a standalone pulsar are so regular and precisely timed that on decadal timescales the best pulsars can rival atomic clocks for stability", which has interesting potential applications.
       The picture that emerges is quite amazing. The universe is almost unfathomably vast: as she casually notes: "there are at least two trillion galaxies in the observable Universe, roughly ten stars go supernova every second somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos". A great challenge is always simply catching (some of) these distant events when they happen (though the after-effects are, of course, also revealing), and Moskvitch captures how scientists have -- often fortuitously -- come across them well. Significantly, contemporary technology allows for much greater coördination among scientists and observatories, allowing also for the 'multi-messenger astronomy' she touts and its obvious advantages (different kinds of reading helping to make a much more complete picture of events). She also presents some of the conclusions that scientists have been able to draw from some of these events and observations -- details that one might have thought would be impossible to reach about objects and events that are so many, many light years distant.
       Neutron Stars does give a solid overview of neutron stars and how science understands them at present -- well in some regards, but with a lot of mystery remaining --, but is more successful as a book about the (present-day) practice of astronomy. Moskvitch's enthusiasm, and her descriptions of the flurry of activity around some of the discoveries (as well as other odds and ends, including the retraction of findings, or failures to get published), nicely capture modern science-in-practice. Her use of personal stories -- including domestic details -- follows in the [unfortunate, to my mind, but what can you do ...] modern trend of science-writing and certainly helps liven up the text; particularly appealing, given the lingering gender-disparity in so much scientific work and coverage, is also her ability to highlight the contributions of a number of women, making clear that this field is far from just a man's world any longer. (It's particularly good to see her note the contributions of Jocelyn Bell (and how she did/does not get enough credit for them ...).)
       In its enthusiasm about the practice -- and possibilities -- of modern astronomy, Neutron Stars is certainly to be recommended for students considering this career path, and indeed anyone interested in just how science 'works', at least in this field. Neutron stars themselves remain a bit more of a mystery -- though some of Moskvitch's chapters include 'Deeper Dives' exploring specific aspects of them that suggests just how much there is to, and to learn about, them.
       Overall, Neutron Stars is an enjoyable read about an area of science in which remarkable advances-in-insight have been made in recent years -- and where much promising work looks to be possible.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 November 2020

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Links:

Neutron Stars: Reviews: Katia Moskvitch: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Science writer Katia Moskvitch grew up in Russia and Canada.

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© 2020 the complete review

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