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Review: The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide

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The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide
by William H. Waller
Princeton Univ. Press, 2013
hardcover, 352 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-691-12224-3

There is a particular fascination in the publishing industry—and thus, presumably, among readers—for “insider’s guides” to various topics. A search of for books with that phrase in the title turns up books on topics as varied as colleges, Connecticut, AP US history, the UN, independent film distribution, and, perhaps most importantly, beer. The promise of such books is that they’ll give the reader insights not otherwise available to help them get into their preferred college, make the most of a vacation, or simply find a good India pale ale.

Waller takes the reader on a whirlwind, but largely straightforward, tour of what we know about our galaxy.

So what, then, can we expect from a book titled The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide? Unlike the topics above, knowledge of the Milky Way doesn’t offer much in the way of practical applications for the reader. Instead, astronomer and science writer William Waller admits in the book’s preface, the title “is a bit of a cruel joke.” We are, after all, insiders of our own galaxy, and are “doomed” to remain so forever. What we can do, though, he suggests, is become experts on our galaxy, by studying the various stars and nebulae within it and use that knowledge, along with observations of other galaxies, to construct models of our own.

Waller takes the reader on a whirlwind, but largely straightforward, tour of what we know about our galaxy, starting with a historical review of the evolution of our knowledge of the Milky Way from mythological origins to our modern-day understanding of it as one of many billions of individual galaxies. Several chapters focus more on stellar than galactic astronomy, as he examines the birth, lives, and death of stars, the primary visible constituent of the galaxy. From there, he examines the structure and dynamics of the galaxy, including the supermassive black hole believed to exist at its core. He wraps up with an examination of the prospects of life elsewhere in the galaxy, including a call to be “fully engaged citizens of the Galaxy” by transmitting signals to other star systems (sometimes called messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence or “active SETI.”)

The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide is a good overview of our knowledge of the Milky Way. One area it falls short, though, is in dark matter: Waller mentions its existence based on the rotational velocities of gas clouds, but spends little detail describing what is arguably one of the biggest mysteries of contemporary astronomy. A challenge this book faces is its audience: there’s just enough physics and math, including some fairly basic equations, to perhaps deter the interested layperson; most of the material, though, will be familiar to people who have had some astronomy. But for those who want to get up to speed on the Milky Way, or simply refresh their knowledge of it, this book can help the reader become an insider about our galactic home.