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Review: Things That Go Bump in the Universe

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Things That Go Bump in the Universe: How Astronomers Decode Cosmic Chaos
by C. Renée James
Johns Hopkins University Press
hardcover, 304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4214-4693-6

Astronomers have, over the last several years, shown a growing interest in a topic known professionally as time domain and multimessenger astrophysics, or TDAMM. The topic has emerged as astronomers grapple with a universe that is far more dynamic than once thought. Rather than nicely periodic variable stars and the occasional supernova, the universe is filled with gamma-ray bursts, fast radio bursts, and other transient phenomena. That is driving work on efforts to rapidly detect and observe such events (the “time domain” of TDAMM) and make observations outside of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as gravitational waves and neutrinos (the “multimessenger” part of TDAMM.)

That particular acronym, jargon for those in the field, doesn’t make it into Things That Go Bump in the Universe, but it is at the heart of the book. C. Renée James, an astronomer, takes the reader on a tour of the universe, showing, as the book’s subtitle suggests, that the cosmos is far more chaotic than astronomers thought a century or even a few decades ago.

One astronomer, she writes, “had that kid-in-a-candy-shop enthusiasm characteristic of every researcher I ever encountered” as he contemplated the end of the universe.

The book tackles a wide range of phenomena, starting with supernova explosions, the one such event witnessed by people before the modern era of astronomy. A familiar cast of astrophysical players fills the pages that follows: quasars, pulsars, black holes, gamma-ray bursts, and more. It’s a travelogue both cosmic and terrestrial, as James travels to observatories from Australia to Louisiana where astronomers study the universe from radio waves to gravitational waves.

One challenge is describing the scale of these events, something that is difficult even for astronomers. James describes how, several decades ago, some astronomers “almost jokingly” developed one unit of energy that they called the foe, an acronym for “fifty-one ergs.” Not 51 ergs, a miniscule amount of energy, but instead 1051 ergs, roughly the amount of energy produced by the average supernova. In other words, a lot of energy. And yet one quasar, described in the book as an “ultramassive” black hole in the heart of a distant galaxy, generates 100 foes of energy a day.

The book can seem dense and bewildering at times, if only because the universe it is trying to describe also seems bewildering. But James does convey the excitement astronomers have in trying to make sense out of that chaos. One astronomer, she writes, “had that kid-in-a-candy-shop enthusiasm characteristic of every researcher I ever encountered.” (This particular astronomer was hypothesizing the end of the universe, some 1032000 years from now, give or take. Hope you’re patient.)

While Things That Go Bump in the Universe conveys that the universe is very dynamic, it is perhaps not dynamic enough for some. James describes in the introduction her desire to see a naked-eye supernova, the last of which was SN 1987a more than 35 years ago, when she was taking an introductory astronomy class. “The prospect of witnessing a supernova with my own eyes is so appealing that in every class I have ever taught, I have promised that I will give an automatic A to every student if a visible supernova occurs during the semester,” she writes. Alas, for both her and her students, no such supernova has appeared yet, “but one can hope.”

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