Kenneth Pestka

A Primer on the Universe

Kenneth Pestka II, assistant professor of physics, recommends five books for novices and experts interested in better understanding the cosmos.

The Lives of Stars

The Lives of Stars

Ken Croswell

Appropriate for young children and adults, The Lives of Stars is filled with stunning images accompanied by detailed explanations of every major stage in the stellar life cycle, from gaseous planetary nebulae, brown dwarfs, and white dwarfs, to stars, giants, supergiants, variable stars, supernovae, and black holes. The Lives of Stars clearly illustrates the origin of elements—derived from the Big Bang or forged in the cores of stars and stellar explosions—that ultimately led to planetary formation and life. Croswell also beautifully presents one of astronomers’ most powerful descriptive tools: the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which places dozens of our famous stellar neighbors in relation to their intrinsic brightness and temperature. Breathtaking images and impressively clear and complete explanations make this short book a joy to peruse and a must-read for any astronomy enthusiast.

The Stardust Revolution

The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars

Jacob Berkowitz

The Stardust Revolution is a modern-day tale of the cosmic processes that have shaped humanity. It provides a historical tour of the scientists and discoveries that helped connect the individual atoms and molecules that pervade the cosmos to the biological structures that make up all life on Earth. As Carl Sagan once said, “We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Berkowitz explains how this star-stuff—produced by a myriad of stellar processes and churned in the interstellar medium—has reshaped the cosmic broth of Big Bang nucleosynthesis and ultimately led to individuals who are able to contemplate the nature of the cosmos.

Einstein's Dream

Einstein’s Dream: The Search for a Unified Theory of the Universe

Barry Parker

This book helped trigger my decision to become a physicist. And even though it was written more than 25 years ago, Einstein’s Dream still provides an unparalleled nonmathematical introduction to modern physics, cosmology, and the search for a theory of everything. Using Einstein’s ever-present historical influence as a backdrop, Einstein’s Dream lucidly conveys the most complex principles of physics—from Einstein’s seminal development of special and general relativity to quantum field theory—in a straightforward yet deeply insightful way. Along the way, Parker describes the history of competing scientific explanations and major controversies. Star death, warped space-time, black holes, as well as the birth and ultimate fate of the universe are all presented with an eye toward unraveling the greatest of mysteries: the ultimate laws that define existence.

Reinventing Gravity

Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein

John W. Moffat

The predominantly accepted model for the evolution of the cosmos is based on Einstein’s gravitational theory with cold dark matter and dark energy. In Reinventing Gravity, Moffat, the developer of the theory of modified gravity, argues that perhaps the search for dark matter and dark energy is much like the once-popular search for the nonexistent planet Vulcan (a theorized planet inside of Mercury’s orbit—not the home of Star Trek’s ever-logical Mr. Spock): a pursuit, based on an outdated model of gravity, that was destined to fail. Moffat recounts the history of cosmology and introduces several alternate theories of gravitation leading ultimately to his modified gravity (MOG) theory. Some predictions of MOG include the elimination of space-time singularities, such as those currently predicted at the center of black holes and at the very beginning of our universe during the Big Bang. Reinventing Gravity serves interested enthusiasts and scientists alike, but the style always remains readable, providing an excellent explanation of the possibilities beyond standard cosmological models.

Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Death by Black Hole runs the gamut of all things astrophysical. Director of the Hayden Planetarium and one of the great modern-day ambassadors of science, Tyson fills this book’s pages with dozens of humorous and insightful essays. The essays follow a logical sequence but operate equally well when picked at random, and they provide clear explanations of asteroids, comets, black holes, galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, and supernova explosions, many of which, as Tyson notes, have the potential to place our species in peril. More than just a guide to cosmic oblivion, the essays highlight scientific discovery and its impact on modern culture (as well as the many places where it is woefully lacking), all the while remaining irreverent, funny, and enlightening.