The art of an insightful, timely, and scientifically rigorous overview is a difficult one. This is compounded when the subjects are as broad as planets and stars, respectively. Fortunately for the educated non-specialists, there two slender volumes succeed where many astronomy texts fail: they provide a comprehensive, up-to-date survey of two fields with enough breadth to be useful and accessible to the astronomy educator while retaining enough technical grit for those desiring more depth.
The first volume (Planets), by an atmospheric planetologist at the Paris Observatory, frames the current state of exoplanetary research and the search for life in the context of comparative planetology, starting with Earth and moving through our planetary system.
Beginning with a brief introduction to observing and exploring planets (including exoplanetary detection), Encrenaz moves into a description of theories of planetary formation and then on to the bulk of the book, treating the physical properties of planets. Using Earth as test case and exploring things like geological activity and the water cycle, she provides in-depth comparison of the atmospheres, compositions, and internal structures of the planets of our solar system, touching briefly on some outer-system moons as well.
All of this sets the stage for the final third of the book, a look at exoplanetary systems– their discovery, their properties, and a quick overview of the status of the search for life in the cosmos. The chapters here remind that this is not a book on exoplanets exclusively: rather, it’s a survey of what we know about planets, which any more must include a detailed exposition of the ways other planetary systems are informing this knowledge.
In some respects, this is more helpful than a book on exoplanets alone, allowing an understanding of our own planetary context in light of these new discoveries.
The second volume is a survey of the physical processes (including a fascinating and detailed analysis of the interstellar medium) governing the life of stars. Lequeux, also of the Paris Observatory, takes a slightly more technical approach. Indeed, it was at times difficult to follow his account of the complex processes taking place within a star at various points in its life cycle.
However, the technical aspects provide a conceptual rigor often glossed over in more popular texts. Topics covered include the birth, physics, evolution, and death of single stars as well as a chapter on the “zoo” of double stars. It concludes with a glimpse of the larger questions of galactic evolution that stellar life and death play into.
Perhaps most importantly, this account discusses the many open questions in stellar evolution, especially star death, and the importance of modeling stellar interiors.
Both books are slender, less than 200 pages each, and filled with diagrams, images, and (especially in Lequeux’s) equations. Both are translations of works originally published in French, and the awkward language at times bears witness to this though never actively detracting from the text.
Neither volume is a textbook (there are no problem sets, for instance), nor are they purely popularizations, maintaining a balance between general survey and in-depth technical treatment. Often I read a survey text and learn nothing new; in contrast, these works are introductions written by active experts in their respective fields, lifting the veil on the physics behind the concepts but keeping a wide and fairly accessible scope, filled with a wealth of new information.
This review first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Planetarian.