`Record Shot' of a Superstar's End

SUPERNOVA! THE EXPLODING STAR OF 1987 By Donald Goldsmith, New York: St. Martin's Press, 221 pp., $15.95

LOOKING into the sky on a crisp, clear winter night, it is easy to view the stars with the same sense of wonder our ancestors experienced. It is easy to forget that these are cosmic furnaces, their cores converting hydrogen to helium at temperatures, pressures, and densities unimaginable on a human scale.

Nearly 160,000 years ago, in a companion galaxy to the Milky Way known as the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of these furnaces ran out of fuel. The star's characteristics ensured that its end would come in a violent explosion known as a supernova.

The timing and location of the event rendered it observable from a planet whose inhabitants had developed the technical and intellectual capacity to monitor the supernova with a wide array of instruments and appreciate its significance.

In his new book, ``Supernova! The Exploding Star of 1987,'' astronomer Donald Goldsmith recaps the story of this remarkable event and its contribution to humanity's understanding of how the universe works.

Supernova 1987A, as the explosion is formally known, burst into our view on Feb. 23, 1987. It was the first such event since 1604 to be seen easily with the naked eye.

Scientists had an unprecedented battery of instruments at their disposal for studying the supernova: from sensitive, water-filled neutrino detectors deep underground to satellites on orbit. Dr. Goldsmith points out that had the supernova's position been only 99.9 percent of its actual distance from Earth, the light would have arrived during the presidency of John Quincy Adams.

Researchers also had a record of the progenitor star. This and other observational data, including the detection of neutrinos from the star's collapsed core, confirmed decades of theoretical work on supernovae.

Goldsmith, whose book ``Nemesis'' earned him the American Institute of Physics award for the best book of 1986, introduces readers to several of the leading scientists involved in supernova research. He reviews the history of humanity's observations of supernovae.

And he gives readers a lively lesson in the life cycles of stars. This includes explanations of the mechanism by which supernovae seed the universe with nuclei that form atoms of elements heavier that hydrogen and helium.

Without supernovae, there would be no gold in Fort Knox or copper for that other ``super'' discovery of the 1986-87 period, high-temperature superconductors.

Although the author succeeds in pulling these threads together in a coherent, readily understandable way, the book isn't entirely satisfying.

In fairness, this may be due to the recent nature of the events he describes. Supernova 1987A became something of a media star throughout most of 1987: To those who followed the progress of the supernova in newspapers, news magazines, on TV, and in more specialized publications such as Sky and Telescope or Science, many of the basic concepts and events will be familiar - perhaps too familiar.

While Goldsmith clearly communicates the discoveries, there isn't enough for informed readers to discover.

One way to offset this would have been to focus more closely on the individuals involved. How did the events of 1987 affect them personally as well as professionally? One session at that year's joint meeting of the American and Canadian Astronomical Societies in Vancouver, B.C., for example, dealt with the effects of research on families, including so-called supernova widows.

Goldsmith gives nice profiles of scientists such as Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Stanford Woosley of the University of California at Santa Cruz. But those are largely narrative profiles; the scientists involved are given precious little opportunity to speak for themselves.

Dr. Kirshner, for example, has held audiences in rapt attention during public lectures at Boston's Museum of Science, frequently displaying a ready wit. It would be fascinating to read about his background, about those who influenced him, and about his work on Supernova 1987A - especially in his own words.

Other sections of the book would have been helped by tighter editing: In an early part of the book, readers come across a ``thanks'' to Kirshner for using Goldsmith's astronomy text in his classes; in another section, readers are treated to a brief protest over the destruction of Earth's ozone layer - a significant problem to be sure, but not relevant to the discussion at hand.

In short, ``Supernova!'' is analogous to what some photographers call a ``record shot.'' The basic information is all there; it is a useful reference; it is straightforward. But it lacks the fresh or unusual perspective that allows those who have ``seen'' it before to find something new.

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