“The Secret Life of Stars” Is Astrophysics for Everyone

From a Wall Street Journal review by Meghan Cox Gurdon of the book “The Secret Life of Stars”:

‘Dwell on the beauty of life,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. “Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” This advice for exalted living will feel all the more achievable for readers who have taken a tour of the universe with Australian astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith.

In a sparkling work of narrative nonfiction, “The Secret Life of Stars,” Ms. Harvey-Smith casts deep-space phenomena such as stars, magnetic fields and nebulae not as remote and impersonal entities but as “temperamental personalities” with human-like quirks, frailties and emotional relationships. In doing so, she creates a way for young readers to grasp sophisticated ideas that might hitherto have eluded them: why the sun produces heat and light; how every atom of iron on Earth was made inside a star; what happens when a celestial behemoth blows up—and what the heck black holes are, anyway.

As Ms. Harvey-Smith explains, the glittering firmament we view from Earth is a place where “we see stable dwarf stars, unpredictable giants, and many in between. We see kind stars, devious stars, selfish and just plain weird stars. Some [stars] live in families,” she goes on, “yet many destroy their relationships or even kill and eat their partners. During a midlife crisis a star can disappear completely, or reincarnate in a colorful cloud of gas. Stars are born and they age, just like us, before slowly succumbing to the inevitable, their ashes returned to the cosmos.”…

Through 14 chapters, each with a droll drawing by Eirian Chapman, our astral guide takes us through what is known—and not known—about the volatile goings-on in space. She tells of cataclysmic explosions in distant galaxies that we know only from the gravitational waves they produce; of supergiants that pulse out scorching gases; of dazzling comets and gorgeous particle clouds; and of the ancient red subdwarf, Kapteyn’s star, that wanders through our Milky Way without being part of it.

The book’s subtitle is “astrophysics for everyone,” and it’s a fair claim. Having hard science presented in the form of lively character sketches is a godsend for those who may find the details of conventional nonfiction hard to retain. Readers ages 12 and older will finish this narrative feeling both better-informed and in awe of the vast forces at work.

For as Ms. Harvey-Smith acknowledges near the end, there’s enigma in the heart of creation. “At the moment of the Big Bang, all of space and time was curled up into an infinitely small point. All the energy, the matter, the heat and light and joy and love of the universe was in one place, just waiting to be unleashed.” So what touched it off?

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