The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Sun
by Jay M. Pasachoff

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(Alpha Books, Penguin/Putnam, 2003)

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Review from Astronomy & Geophysics

(Royal Astronomical Society, U.K.)
August 2004, vol. 45, issue 4, p. 4.44.

The Sun: for academics, students and idiots

If you're interested in plasma physics, and the strength of this research field suggests many scientists are, you have only a limited number of places in which to observe plasma phenomena. Many plasma physicists turn to the Sun, as one of the closest and best-studied sources of this state of matter, for their observational data. What better place to start than with "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Sun" by Jay M. Pasachoff? This paperback continues the tradition of the "Idiot's Guide" series with an introduction to the science, history and astronomy of the Sun.

We can be very proud that we live in a golden era of solar physics, witness to amazing discoveries inside and outside the Sun. The ability to communicate complicated problems in such a way that even a non-expert can understand them and find the field interesting is the gift of a true expert. After reading this book, I am certain that Pasachoff is one of these gifted people. The book is written in an almost story-book fashion, with his amazing description of the Sun carrying the reader from the solar inner core, through the different layers of the Sun and on out to the Earth. His historical survey and the sheer volume of background information - I especially enjoyed his "Solar Scribblings" and "Fun Sun Facts" - make the reading easy and entertaining. He covers the entire life of our living star: how it was born billions of years ago, how we see it now and - sadly - how it will die. Highlighting the major limits in existing theories and observations, he paints a bright future. Before reading this book I thought that I knew a lot about the Sun and solar mysteries. After finishing it, I am sure that my knowledge has become wider and richer. It is a shame that most of the images are black and white considering the target audience; maybe more colourful images would have had a more pronounced effect. Despite this, I am sure that undergraduate students and non-specialists will find this book as interesting as I did.

[review continues with 4 more technical books]
review signed by Istvan Ballai



from the July 2004 Sky & Telescope:

Totally Solar Equipped, review by Carolyn Collins Petersen

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Sun

Jay M. Pasachoff (Alpha Books, 2003)
350 pages. ISBN 1-59257-074-7. $18.95, paperbound.

Ask someone what there is to know about the Sun and you may hear, "It's hot and it shines. What's more to know?" Take it to the next level and ask why it's hot and how it shines, and you may not get an answer as now you've ventured into some fairly complex physics. That's where Jay Pasachoff and his Complete Idiot's Guide to the Sun come in handy.

It isn't that the author thinks you're an idiot if you don't know much about the Sun. Quite the contrary. Pasachoff (a professor of astronomy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts) loves to talk about the Sun, and it shows. He gently takes you by the hand and tells you everything you want to know about our star, and more. The book is divided into six sections telling us what the Sun looks like, how it has evolved, what eclipses are and what we learn by observing them, how we study the Sun, and how the Sun and Earth are linked.

Before you realize you're delving into solar physics, you've learned about nuclear physics in the core of the Sun, how solar neutrinos were first detected, how a spectrum of sunlight tells what elements can be found in the solar atmosphere, where the Sun stands in the hierarchy of stars, and - Pasachoff's favorite topic - the mechanics of total solar eclipses.

Just about the time you get around to wondering, "How do we know all this stuff?" the book launches into a world-spanning tour of solar observatories. Then Pasachoff takes the reader on a leap into space, first aboard sounding rockets and then highlighting the four decades of orbiting telescopes. The comprehensive views we have of the Sun, its structures, and its effects on the rest of the solar system (through radiation, the solar wind, flares, and other outbursts) are largely due to the years-long efforts of physicists using these observatories.

My favorite section is the last one, titled "The Sun-Earth Connection." In its three chapters - "Constancy, Thy Name Isn't the Sun," "Greenhouses of Salt," and "The Forecast Today Is Flares" - Pasachoff brings everything we've learned in the previous chapters into sharp focus. He relates it all to our existence here on Earth, as beings within range of a living, "breathing" star.

When the Sun burps out a flare, the Earth "sees" the consequences very quickly thereafter, and scientists collect immense amounts of data. As our star moves through a sunspot cycle, we can observe the effects. Because of changes occurring in our own atmosphere, we can map the effects of the Sun across the planet, especially in places like Punta Arenas, Chile, where solar ultraviolet radiation streaming through the ozone hole poses a clear and present danger each spring. These cases point out that the relationship between the Sun and the Earth is complex and ever changing, and that our role is not always a passive one.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It's written in clear, approachable language, giving the casual reader who doesn't mind learning a little bit of physics along the way a good feel for the complex topics involved in understanding the solar system's main energy source. Pasachoff begins each chapter with bullet points - sort of an executive summary of what he will discuss later. After delving into the topics, he concludes each chapter with another summary. Occasionally this approach leads to excessive repetition. although a keener editorial eye could have prevailed over some particularly wordy sections, overall Pasachoff does a good job explaining the complexities of solar physics to the layperson.

The structure of each chapter enhances the book's overall approachability. Boxes give the reader bite-size nuggets of "Sun Fun Facts," "Solar Scribblings," and others. There are also many illustrations and photographs (but just a few in color).

Pasachoff often uses references from the history and popular culture to help the reader understand a point. In Chapter 28 he talks about the dangers posed to astronauts traveling through space and invokes images from movies to introduce the concept of space weather, the disturbances imparted in the interplanetary medium by flares and other outbursts from the Sun.

"Buck Rogers, Captain Video, and other early fictional astronauts moved easily around the solar system. But the solar system, outside the Earth's protective envelope, is a rough place. High-energy particles of light, including x-rays and gamma rays, and fast-moving particles of matter smack into whatever is up there. To function in space, we must be alert to space weather."

This kind of colorful writing livens up what could be a dreadfully dull topic at the hands of a less imaginative writer. Those reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Sun will come away saying, "Well, there is more to know about the Sun," and feel good about how they learned it.


Table of Contents  

Part 1: What the Sun Looks Like

    1    The Sun Shines On Us

    2    The Active Sun

    3    Seeing the Invisible

    4    The Sun Goes Up; the Sun Goes Down

    5    Our Sun: Looking Good


Part 2: The Sun Through Time

    6    The Sun as a Star

    7    The Sun and Civilization

    8    The Birth of the Sun

    9    The Sun at the Center

    10   The Death of the Sun


Part 3: Eclipses of the Sun

    11   Who Stole the Sun?

    12   Saros and Cycles

    13   Helium: Only on the Sun

    14   To the Ends of the Earth

    15   To Be in the Moon's Shadow

    16   Venus Tries to Cover Immodestly  


Part 4: The Sun from Mountaintops

    17   High Above the Clouds

    18   Sunspot, New Mexico, and the House of the Sun

    19   Canaries and the Big Dog

    20   Ringing Like a Bell


Part 5: The Sun from Space

    21   Above the Air Is Better

    22   Sunbeam

    23   Yo Ho, SOHO

    24   Tracing Out the Loops

    25   Plunging into the Sun


Part 6: The Sun-Earth Connection

    26   Constancy, Thy Name Isn't the Sun

    27   Greenhouses of Salt

    28   The Forecast Today Is Flares



    A    Glossary

    B    Solar Observatories

    C    Astronomy Clubs and Solar Interest Groups

    D    A Word on Temperature

    E    Selected Readings



Solar Links
The Complete Idiot's Guides