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The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos (Princeton Science Library) [Paperback]

Robert P. Kirshner
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 5, 2004 069111742X 978-0691117423

One of the world's leading astronomers, Robert Kirshner, takes readers inside a lively research team on the quest that led them to an extraordinary cosmological discovery: the expansion of the universe is accelerating under the influence of a dark energy that makes space itself expand. In addition to sharing the story of this exciting discovery, Kirshner also brings the science up-to-date in a new epilogue. He explains how the idea of an accelerating universe--once a daring interpretation of sketchy data--is now the standard assumption in cosmology today.

This measurement of dark energy--a quality of space itself that causes cosmic acceleration--points to a gaping hole in our understanding of fundamental physics. In 1917, Einstein proposed the "cosmological constant" to explain a static universe. When observations proved that the universe was expanding, he cast this early form of dark energy aside. But recent observations described first-hand in this book show that the cosmological constant--or something just like it--dominates the universe's mass and energy budget and determines its fate and shape.

Warned by Einstein's blunder, and contradicted by the initial results of a competing research team, Kirshner and his colleagues were reluctant to accept their own result. But, convinced by evidence built on their hard-earned understanding of exploding stars, they announced their conclusion that the universe is accelerating in February 1998. Other lines of inquiry and parallel supernova research now support a new synthesis of a cosmos dominated by dark energy but also containing several forms of dark matter. We live in an extravagant universe with a surprising number of essential ingredients: the real universe we measure is not the simplest one we could imagine.

This book invites any reader to share in the excitement of a remarkable adventure of discovery.

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The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos (Princeton Science Library) + Prisons of Light - Black Holes + Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Astronomer Kirshner, the Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University and head of the optical and infrared division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is part of a team studying supernovae that, by their apparent brightness, make it possible to measure distances in the universe. "The observations of distant supernovae show that we live in a universe that is not static as Einstein thought, and not just expanding as Hubble showed, but accelerating! We attribute this increase in expansion over time to a dark energy with an outward-pushing pressure.... Dark energy makes up the missing component of mass-energy that theorists have sought, reconciles the ages of objects with the present expansion rate of the universe, and complements new measurements of the lingering glow of the Big Bang itself to make a neat and surprising picture for the contents of the universe." It is an extravagant universe: "It has neutrinos as hot dark matter; something unknown as cold dark matter; inflation in the first 10-35 second after the Big Bang; and acceleration by dark energy now." Kirshner makes the story sing and the concepts of astronomy vivid.

Editors of Scientific American --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Winner of the 2002 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Physics and Astronomy, Association of American Publishers

Finalist for the 2003 Aventis General Prize

"Kirshner is a talented writer, and both experts and general readers will find his book a consistently enjoyable read. . . . The Extravagant Universe is a personal book. . . . For the general reader interested in the excitement of how science is done, this strategy makes for a fascinating account. . . . The story . . . is irresistible in its own right, and is related with verve and good humor. . . . Books like this one will help inspire the next generation of physicists."--Sean Carroll, Nature

"An extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable account of our amazing universe."--Michael S. Turner, Science

"Robert Kirshner has written an excellent insider's account of the race to discover the fate of the cosmos. . . . Kirshner shows an impressively deft touch with complex explanations, and he doesn't hesitate to bridge gaps in the reader's knowledge with an apt metaphor. . . . The Extravagant Universe delivers the promise of its subtitle extremely well, and should serve as the definitive insider's story of how Kirshner led his motley group of astronomers to glory in their search to find the fate of the universe."--Donald Goldsmith, Natural History

"Fellow astronomers--and generations of Harvard undergraduates--have long appreciated [Kirshner] as a raconteur of exceptional eloquence, so it is hard to imagine anyone better suited to give us the inside story on the new discoveries. [He] does not disappoint. He tells, in large part, a story of how improved technology has enabled astronomers to look farther into the distance and thus further into the past."--Laurence Marschall, Discover Magazine

"The Extravagant Universe is hugely enjoyable. . . . It's wonderful . . . an entertaining and witty account of one of the biggest scientific stories of the past 10 years: how exploding supernovae show that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. . .. Do buy this delightful book."--Michael Rowan-Robinson, New Scientist

"More than one book already exists about this momentous discovery, but this new entry, The Extravagant Universe, by Robert Kirshner, is probably the best one to read. . . . This is an insider's account of how the work was done. Besides giving an up-to-the-minute account of the science, Mr. Kirshner lets us share vicariously in the thrill of discovery."--The Economist

"[A] witty new book."--Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal

"A pleasure to read."--Maggie McDonald, New Scientist

"The Extravagant Universe isn't the only accessible book about dark energy and cosmic acceleration on the market. However, it provides a unique behind-the-scenes feeling for the heady days leading up to the discovery. I found it ever harder to put down as I drew closer to the crucial moment when Kirshner and his colleagues found themselves staring the cosmological constant in the face."--Joshua Roth, Sky & Telescope

"Talented researcher Kirshner clearly describes the scientific detective work responsible for current ideas about the history of the universe. . . . Kirshner has been at the forefront of these developments. . . . He brings everything together using simple, effective, and often humorous analogies and anecdotes to explain how research teams interact as they built the chronology of how the universe developed and evolved to where it is today."--Choice

"The gripping story of how two competing groups of scientists came to make, and finally believe, the surprising measurements on which a radical new view of the universe depends. . . . It is an evocative reminder that cosmology, too, is now a true observational, experimental science, securely grounded in the messy practical realities of making measurements."--Michael Riordan, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] delightful and accessible book. . . . And Kirshner's unique combination of after-dinner-style repartee and physics-for-novices analogies makes for a very entertaining read."--Richard Ellis, Physics World

"An insider's scoop on what is arguably the hottest astronomy story of our time. Kirshner has written a book that is not only history of modern cosmology, but also a case study in the scientific process. . . . Kirshner uses wonderfully simple and sometimes amusing analogies to explain complicated concepts."--Jennifer Birriel, Mercury

"A wonderfully informative and engaging book on one of the most exciting developments in modern cosmology."--Alex Filippenko, Astronomy

"A readable, entertaining, and informative account of an ancient and familiar--yet newly reinvigorated--branch of science."--James Case, SIAM News

"I loved this book. Kirschner writes with passion, humanity and generosity."--Margaret Dobbins, The Daily Telegraph

"Kirshner's book represents a high point in popular science publishing. It works at several levels, especially the personal, in which he offers a well-written, even classic, account of the life of a working scientist.... The Extravagant Universe is a book that will be read for pleasure. . . . Kirshner has a real gift for visualizing the shape and structure of the universe."--Martin Ince, Times Higher Education Supplement

"The first eight chapters provide an introduction to cosmology at the level of Astronomy 101. . . . That tale is often told, but seldom so engagingly. The analogies are apt, the anecdotes are amusing, and the writing is brisk and witty--in places downright funny. . . . Kirshner succeeds in conveying the difficulty and excitement of the hunt for remote supernovae."--David Branch, Physics Today

Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Science Library
  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069111742X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691117423
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,789 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
94 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I've Been Waiting... October 8, 2002
...I have waited impatiently for this book, waited filled with questions that have not been answered by the press coverage on the Harvard supernova team's work. So much of the story is not sound-bite-able, but requires some exposition.
Closing the book, I feel like I've completed a 5 course Thanksgiving dinner. I feel great satisfaction. I still have lots of questions, but most of the remaining ones are for the theoretical physicists who are now working to explain what the Harvard team found. On behalf of the astronomers, Kirshner unhesitatingly gives up the family jewels in his book.
This is a two-part book. Part one, chapters 1 - 7, is a well-crafted primer on astronomy and physics, with an overview of the cosmological mass density problem that addresses the geometry of space-time and the ultimate fate of the universe.
The rest of the book covers the story of the Harvard high-z supernova research team and the remarkably creative and clever way they tried to solve the mass density problem.
I became a little restless reading chapters 1 - 7. I have spent years reading about and pondering the information in this part of the book, and I believe that some readers of "The Extravagant Universe" may have, too. A lot of good books have been written on various aspects of modern astronomy and physics and on the personalities who pushed us along toward our current understanding of where the universe came from and how it works. Most of these books delve more deeply into smaller chunks of the big picture. By contrast, Kirshner goes hard and fast, presenting the material in such a way as to be entertaining and comprehensible to a reader who has never read a book on astronomy, physics or cosmology.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An absorbing story of a recent monumental discovery November 20, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In early 1998, scientist Robert Kirshner and his team published the astonishing claim that the universe's expansion was accelerating due to the power of dark energy. Subsequent research has not been able to disprove the results obtained by Kirshner's "high-z supernova search team." This book is Kirshner's discussion of that finding and its importance to cosmology.
The first half of the book is essentially a crash course in the basics of cosmology, with many anecdotes and background from earlier research since Einstein or even before. Kirshner's witty style keeps this section entertaining even for those familiar with the information. He compares several distance indicators, such as Cepheid variables, redshifts, and supernovae. We learn how supernovae can be used to measure distances to remote galaxies due to their incredible brightness. We also become familiar with the pitfalls of using supernovae as standard candles, because there are a few different types.
Then the author gets into the real purpose of his book: to describe his research team's methods, results, and road to success with the press. The subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading; it should have been something like "The Story of the High-Z Supernova Search Team". Though the information wasn't presented in quite the way I was expecting, Kirshner gets the job done. He patiently educates the layman reader in many aspects of astronomy and cosmology. Towards the end it becomes a race between two supernova search teams using different methods. Though I found this yarn interesting, I would have preferred a general discourse to the narrative presented here.
Overall, this book is probably one of the most well-written and absorbing reads on this specific subject. Science and astronomy buffs should enjoy it greatly.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating... February 28, 2004
Robert Kirshner's book, `The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy and the Accelerating Cosmos', is another in a series of interesting texts on cosmology written essentially for those who are science-illiterate, or at least only somewhat informed, and who wish to know some of the key insights and discoveries of our time regarding astronomy. Particularly at the end of this text, where Kirshner explains the importance of this kind of scientific research (why would the government or private agencies want to spend money on research that has little if anything to do with addressing the desires of humanity, encapsulated by Kirshner, as wanting to `rich, safe and immortal'?) for the average person - it is not just for intellectual fancy or whim, but the long-term implications of understanding the universe can affect our lives in ways we can't even contemplate today.
Kirshner's narrative looks at many of the key discoveries, controversies, and personalities of the field of astrophysics, theoretical physics and cosmology in the twentieth century. Kirshner lays the groundwork not with Einstein (as so many texts do) but rather goes behind Einstein to the earlier work of Gauss and Riemann, with mathematics that, at the time, would not have been considered useful in the ways Einstein's general relativity made it. Kirshner looks at observation (Hubble Telescope, observations of background radiation through various methods, etc.) as well as theoretical conjectures to show the strand of thinking from the early universal constructs to present day theories.
Kirshner traces the history of recent astronomy and cosmology through researchers in history such as Einstein and Hubble as well as persons he knows personally and professionally at work in the field today.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Must buy!
A great book! It explained the concepts of using SN 1a's as a standard candle to find the distance to a galaxy. Mr. Kirshner is a great author and wrote an amazing book.
Published 9 months ago by maria j gross
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Story Well Told
Imagine if the James Watson who wrote The Double Helix were an astrophysicist rather than a biologist and was writing about a race against another team to find the nature of the... Read more
Published 11 months ago by rol
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book but with a somewhat misleading title
I bought this book to read during my vacation for the purpose of getting up to date on the topic of dark energy. Read more
Published on September 8, 2010 by Eric Berube
5.0 out of 5 stars A must - have in you library!
Who may resist the irresistible magnetism of an unfinished and always explored issue like this one?. Read more
Published on January 24, 2007 by Hiram Gomez Pardo
3.0 out of 5 stars Great writing, but not enough physics, and too much history
The writing is excellent. He has a nice way of describing things.

I wish the book focussed more on describing physical processes. Read more
Published on September 27, 2006 by nerdyguy1618
5.0 out of 5 stars Extravagant Universe, by Robert P. Kirshner
I loved this book!!

Very informative but easy to understand.

I read it 4 times!!
Published on August 27, 2005 by Johnny Bear
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but was hoping for more scientific detail
The Extravagant Universe is an interesting read, taking you through the career of Professor Kirshner as well as an overview of the components of the universe and astronomy. Read more
Published on January 10, 2005 by Adam Rosenbaum
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice story - science lacking
Dr. Kirshiner spins a good yarn. The focus of the book is mostly on the story and history of the accelerating universe theory, presented in a very readable style. Read more
Published on May 18, 2004 by D. Bennett
4.0 out of 5 stars A good description of a challenging discovery
"Extravagant Universe" is one of the best books on the market if you're looking to fathom the recent discoveries regarding the apparent acceleration of the universe's... Read more
Published on November 13, 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been better!
This book focus more on the writer's biography than anything else. Little scientifical explanations are given considering the bulk of the book. Very narrow and somewhat shallow. Read more
Published on October 25, 2003 by Luigi
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