How Old Is the Universe?

Princeton University Press
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Astronomers have determined that our universe is 13.7 billion years old. How exactly did they come to this precise conclusion? How Old Is the Universe? tells the incredible story of how astronomers solved one of the most compelling mysteries in science and, along the way, introduces readers to fundamental concepts and cutting-edge advances in modern astronomy.

The age of our universe poses a deceptively simple question, and its answer carries profound implications for science, religion, and philosophy. David Weintraub traces the centuries-old quest by astronomers to fathom the secrets of the nighttime sky. Describing the achievements of the visionaries whose discoveries collectively unveiled a fundamental mystery, he shows how many independent lines of inquiry and much painstakingly gathered evidence, when fitted together like pieces in a cosmic puzzle, led to the long-sought answer. Astronomers don't believe the universe is 13.7 billion years old--they know it. You will too after reading this book. By focusing on one of the most crucial questions about the universe and challenging readers to understand the answer, Weintraub familiarizes readers with the ideas and phenomena at the heart of modern astronomy, including red giants and white dwarfs, cepheid variable stars and supernovae, clusters of galaxies, gravitational lensing, dark matter, dark energy and the accelerating universe--and much more. Offering a unique historical approach to astronomy, How Old Is the Universe? sheds light on the inner workings of scientific inquiry and reveals how astronomers grapple with deep questions about the physical nature of our universe.

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About the author

David A. Weintraub is professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System (Princeton).
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Nov 15, 2010
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Science / Astronomy
Science / Cosmology
Science / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Over the past twenty years, astronomers have identified hundreds of extrasolar planets--planets orbiting stars other than the sun. Recent research in this burgeoning field has made it possible to observe and measure the atmospheres of these exoplanets. This is the first textbook to describe the basic physical processes--including radiative transfer, molecular absorption, and chemical processes--common to all planetary atmospheres, as well as the transit, eclipse, and thermal phase variation observations that are unique to exoplanets.

In each chapter, Sara Seager offers a conceptual introduction, examples that combine the relevant physics equations with real data, and exercises. Topics range from foundational knowledge, such as the origin of atmospheric composition and planetary spectra, to more advanced concepts, such as solutions to the radiative transfer equation, polarization, and molecular and condensate opacities. Since planets vary widely in their atmospheric properties, Seager emphasizes the major physical processes that govern all planetary atmospheres.

Moving from first principles to cutting-edge research, Exoplanet Atmospheres is an ideal resource for students and researchers in astronomy and earth sciences, one that will help prepare them for the next generation of planetary science.

The first textbook to describe exoplanet atmospheres
Illustrates concepts using examples grounded in real data
Provides a step-by-step guide to understanding the structure and emergent spectrum of a planetary atmosphere
Includes exercises for students

A Note from the Author: On August 24, 2006, at the 26th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague, by a majority vote of only the 424 members present, the IAU (an organization of over 10,000 members) passed a resolution defining planet in such a way as to exclude Pluto and established a new class of objects in the solar system to be called "dwarf planets," which was deliberately designed to include Pluto.

With the discovery of Eris (2003 UB313)--an outer solar system object thought to be both slightly larger than Pluto and twice as far from the Sun--astronomers have again been thrown into an age-old debate about what is and what is not a planet. One of many sizeable hunks of rock and ice in the Kuiper Belt, Eris has resisted easy classification and inspired much controversy over the definition of planethood. But, Pluto itself has been subject to controversy since its discovery in 1930, and questions over its status linger. Is it a planet? What exactly is a planet?

Is Pluto a Planet? tells the story of how the meaning of the word "planet" has changed from antiquity to the present day, as new objects in our solar system have been discovered. In lively, thoroughly accessible prose, David Weintraub provides the historical, philosophical, and astronomical background that allows us to decide for ourselves whether Pluto is indeed a planet.

The number of possible planets has ranged widely over the centuries, from five to seventeen. This book makes sense of it all--from the ancient Greeks' observation that some stars wander while others don't; to Copernicus, who made Earth a planet but rejected the Sun and the Moon; to the discoveries of comets, Uranus, Ceres, the asteroid belt, Neptune, Pluto, centaurs, the Kuiper Belt and Eris, and extrasolar planets.

Weaving the history of our thinking about planets and cosmology into a single, remarkable story, Is Pluto a Planet? is for all those who seek a fuller understanding of the science surrounding both Pluto and the provocative recent discoveries in our outer solar system.

The Series

This new series is aimed at the same people as the Practical Astronomy Series – in general, active amateur astronomers. However, it is also appropriate to a wider audience of astronomically-informed readers. Because optical astronomy is a science that is rather at the mercy of the weather, all amateur astronomers inevitably have periods when observing is impossible. At such times they tend to read books about astronomy and related subjects. The Astronomers’ Universe Series begins by assuming an appropriate level of knowledge. Basic information about the distance, the solar system, galaxies, etc. is not part of these books, which can take a basic understanding of this as their starting point.

The series is differentiated from popular science series (such as Springer’s Copernicus books) by a strong design image which will attract active amateur astronomers, but will also appeal to "armchair astronomers" (or cosmologists) and other readers who already have the necessary background knowledge.

The Book

This book is about the origin questions – the questions of how (1) the planets, (2) the stars, (3) the galaxies, and (4) the universe itself were formed. These are the biggest questions in astronomy, and in the last decade, there has been a revolution in observational astronomy which has meant that we are very close to answering three of the four big questions. It is therefore a propitious time for this book.

In the last decade, there has been a revolution in observational astronomy, which has meant that we are very close to answering three of the four big ‘origin questions’, of how the planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe itself were formed.

As recently as 1995 we knew of only one planetary system: our own. Now we know of over a hundred, and this knowledge has helped to reveal how planetary systems form. In this same decade, new types of telescope have allowed us to penetrate through clouds of interstellar dust to see the first moments in the life of a star, and also to see directly (not infer) what galaxies looked like thirteen billion years ago, only a billion years after the Big Bang. Because of this new knowledge, we now have provisional answers to the second and third origin question. The final question is the one we can’t yet answer, but even here there have been big steps towards an answer. Within the last four years, astronomers have discovered that the universe is geometrically flat and that its expansion is accelerating, fuelled by a mysterious dark energy.

This revolution in our observational knowledge of the universe – including the first precise measurements of its age and matter and energy content - has been vital groundwork for new ideas about its origin, including the possibility that the universe originated in a larger `meta-universe’.

Origin Questions describes, at an understandable and basically non-mathematical level, the origin questions and the recent steps that have been taken towards answering them.

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