“Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction” by John Gribbin

“Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction” by John GribbinGalaxies: A Very Short Introduction
John Gribbin
Oxford University Press

Galaxies was my second Very Short Introduction on astronomy, and I found it to be more of a challenge than the first. In fact I had to read it twice in order to get my head around some of the concepts. The book was rather inconsistent when it came to explaining astronomical terms and concepts—some are explained in the text, some are defined in the glossary, but others are not explained at all—and this made it hard to follow some of the discussion. I’ve filled some of the gaps serendipitously in the course of listening to the very entertaining 365 Days of Astronomy podcast daily, but it shouldn’t have to come to that with a book that purports to be an introduction for the average reader.

I did learn quite a lot from the book in spite of the occasional difficulties. The first section covers the history of the study of galaxies which is very recent, since it takes a powerful telescope to distinguish the individual stars in a galaxy. It was not until the 1920s that Edwin Hubble, working with the largest telescope yet built, established that previously observed nebulae are not clouds of gas but clouds of stars, and that our galaxy is not the only one in the Universe. Indeed astronomers now estimate that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, each of which can contain hundreds of billions of stars.

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment…

OK. Although the book does cover the development, structure, distribution, and dynamics of galaxies, most of it is really about what we have learned about the Universe from studying galaxies. I won’t go into detail here (and I’m not sure I could explain it anyway), but the study of galaxies has led to profound discoveries about the nature of the Universe. It’s a perfect example of how studying one thing in detail can contribute greatly to a better understanding of something much greater. However, I think the book dwelt on the subject too long, at the expense of describing galaxies themselves in more detail, and perhaps straying into the territory of Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction, my next astronomy book. I look forward to that book filling in more of the gaps in my understanding of what we know about this astounding Universe of ours.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Hubble Ultra Deep Field: This is what they saw when they pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at an “empty” patch of sky: over 10,000 galaxies never seen before.

International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge


11 comments on ““Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction” by John Gribbin

  1. Stefanie says:

    The size and scope of the universe truly is unfathomable. I never cease to be amazed and humbled. And what a gorgeous photo of “empty” space!

  2. Sylvia says:

    I know! Astronomy never fails to deliver amazement. This International Year of Astronomy has been great for blowing my mind on an almost daily basis.

  3. AndrewL says:

    I've always had a soft spot for astronomy. Astronomy, for me, is one of those great intersections in life where the awesomeness is appreciated by both left and right brains.
    Astronomy Picture Of The Day (APOD) is a great link to visit daily (google APOD), as is the official Hubble site.
    I've always found it interesting that they think the order of magnitude is roughly the same for stars and galaxies. I wonder if that order can be taken to another level, up or down. 100s of billions of universes?

  4. Sylvia says:

    Andrew, I kind of like the theory that our universe will eventually collapse into a singularity, explode in another Big Bang, create a whole new universe, and so on forever.

    I love APOD. I've had it in my sidebar all year and I may keep it after this year is over.

  5. Tom says:

    But why does the universe exist? What's beyond it? Another universe?

  6. Sylvia says:

    Who knows, but we have a few billion years before the sun blows up to keep searching for answers!

  7. Rebecca Reid says:

    I don't know anything about astronomy. sounds like this might not be the best start but at least it has some good info!

  8. Sylvia says:

    Yes, The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction would be a much better place to start. It is chronological and therefore easy to follow, and comes very much from the perspective of human observers rather than getting into abstract physics and cosmology.

  9. Tom says:

    Just downloaded a sample of the Cosmology VSI to my Kindle. Very readable! That hasn't been my experience with the VSI series. A great concept, but the writing has seemed a bit too…I dunno…academic, highbrow…boring. Anyway, Cosmology seems to be written for the rest of us – the way an “introduction” should. Kindle's are cool by the way.

  10. Sylvia says:

    I agree, Tom. From what I've read in Cosmology so far it seems very well written. Alas there is little correlation between expertise and communication skills. When the two do come together (e.g. Neil de Grasse Tyson) it's a special thing. Glad you're enjoying your Kindle!

  11. Astronomy has always excited me….And this book Galaxy is sure gonna be my next preference from A1Books online store 🙂

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