This book offers an intimate guide to our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It is written in an enthusiastic, playful way, using simple yet elegant language to explain some pretty in-depth topics. The book begins with a description of the different structures that make up the Milky Way, such as globular clusters, gas clouds and the many kinds of star. Waller then describes how various cultures and mythologies across the world have attempted to explain the cosmos, and how the rise of science has led to our present understanding. Early astronomy was purely visual, but the discovery and use of the electromagnetic spectrum greatly expanded our ability to explore the universe. Discussing the use of infrared spectroscopy, X-rays and gamma rays is always a difficult topic to get readers excited about, and even harder to maintain their interest throughout, but this book achieves this very well.
Waller goes on to take the reader on a grand tour of our home Galaxy’s structure, genesis, and evolution; together with the development of stars, from their births in enormous gas clouds through their lives on the main sequence to their ultimate fates as planetary nebulae, white dwarfs, neutron stars or black holes. He ties in the astrobiological angles well by explaining the role played by the earliest stars in the creation of the heavier elements and their incorporation to form rocky planets like the Earth; leading to a discussion of the possibilities for life elsewhere in the galaxy. The author is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and conveys well that our very existence is inextricably linked to the galaxy that spawned us.
Although a very accessible read I feel at least a basic grasp of physics and astronomy is helpful to take full enjoyment of this book. It is not essential, though. Mathematical formulae are thankfully kept to a minimum and can safely be skimmed over without losing an understanding of the story. An excellent and comprehensive guide to the Milky Way, this book should be at the top of reading lists for new astronomy students, but is also of value to citizen scientists who wish to deepen their understanding of our place in the universe.
Review by Louisa Preston