What Are Gamma-Ray Bursts?

By Joshua S Bloom. Hardback, 280pp. US Price $27.95 (paperback). UK Price £19.95 (pb). Publisher: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0691145563

What are Gamma-Ray Bursts? Well, bursts of Gamma Rays of course! (Actually, in a field which brought us “planetary” nebulae and “early-type” galaxies, it’s not always safe to take such things for granted). If you want more detail than that though, things get a bit trickier. Gamma Ray Burst (or GRB) science is a rapidly changing and fast-evolving field, with literally thousands of scientific papers in the literature. In this book (available in hardback, or paperback and for the Amazon Kindle) Josh Bloom — a well known member of the scientific community studying GRBs — presents a clear and succinct overview of the field.

What Are Gamma-Ray Bursts?

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The book is well structured, beginning with the history of Gamma Ray bursts from their discovery in the late 1960s up to the present date. It then goes on to explore the main themes of GRB science: what the actual Gamma Ray Burst emission is; what causes the “afterglow” phenomenon; what the environment of the GRB is (on scales from local to universal); what the objects which end up exploding as GRBs are; and the use of GRBs as tools to study the universe generally. Bloom manages to compress the enormous volume of scientific analysis into about 200 pages, without it feeling hurried or overly concise, which is no mean feat!

This book is probably not for everyone. If you are a student starting a project or PhD on GRBs, get this book now! Without doubt it will serve as an excellent introduction to the field, and provide you with many references for further reading. In fact, I would say it makes a good introduction to the target even for more experienced researchers making their first forray into GRB science.

For the lay person the book is by no means inaccessible, and the excellent glossary and use of footnotes to contain most of the mathematical detail helps in this regard. Nonetheless, some degree of scientific and astronomical background knowledge will be needed to get the most out of the book. In his preface, Bloom says, “This is a book intended for astronomy enthusiast and those with some level of training in undergraduate physics sciences. However, I presuppose no particular or specialized knowledge of astronomy and physics here.” and this is a fair guide of the level at which the book is pitched. Nonetheless, even those without some level of undergraduate physics will be able to take much from the book, I think, although they may want to gloss over some of the technical details.

In tone, the book is very easy to read and I also liked the level of first person involvement in the text. Bloom gives us enough of himself and of his contribution to the field that the reader naturally connects with the narrative voice, without overdoing it or allowing his own achievements to dominate.

I have one, rather minor criticism: GRB scientists love acronyms, and in my view this book was slightly heavy on them and this may irritate lay readers a little. But this is a small glitch on an otherwise highly commendable work.

Guest review by Phil Evans

Click to buy What Are Gamma-Ray Bursts? in the US.
Click to buy What Are Gamma-Ray Bursts? in the UK.

(Dr Phil Evans is a a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Leicester and part of the team using data from the joint UK, US and Italian Swift satellite launched in 2004 to monitor and follow up Gamma-Ray Bursts. Follow Phil on Twitter: @swift_phil.)

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