book review

Plasma physics & astrophysics books

Space Physics
An introduction to plasmas and particles in the heliosphere and magnetosphere, 3rd ed.
May-Britt Kallenrode, Springer, 2010 reprint of 2004 edition, 482 pages
Reviewed By

T he space within our solar system and around stars and nebulae is filled with ionized particles known as plasma. Plasma makes up the solar wind, produces auroras, and constitutes the "weather" part of space weather. In space, the particles are mainly protons and electrons. Much of the behavior of plasma is dominated by electrons because of their higher mobility.

The first section of this book (chapters 1-5) is a review of electromagnetism and kinetic theory from undergraduate physics. The equations are explained pretty well, although this section is none too exciting, and I experienced an almost irresistible temptation to skip to chapter 6.

The second section (chapters 6-10) discuss space plasmas. Little of the math in the first section is used, and the emphasis is on providing a qualitative understanding of space plasma and its effects. The third section is 20 pages on instrumentation.

There are many graphs, diagrams and equations (using vector calculus and other standard physics-type stuff). About half of the figures are messed up with strange computer glitches, making them uninterpretable. There are some solved example problems, 573 references, and even a little tensor calculus, but the dry writing style make the subject seem more abstract than it really is.

Take, for example, the discussion of whistler waves on p.235: whistlers are pure EM phenomena, and although they might be ducted in a planetary waveguide, they couldn't just be trapped like electrons in a magnetic field as the author says. After re-reading it several times, it becomes clear that's probably what she was actually trying to say; but it's obscured by the clumsy writing. A bit of editing (and maybe some new graphics software) might give the 4th edition of this book the greater readership this topic deserves. The amazing beauty of these phenomena (auroras, solar wind, and solar flares) has the ability to inspire awe in students and professionals alike.

A more readable, if somewhat more mathematically intimidating, treatment, is Plasma Physics for Astrophysics by R. M. Kulsrud.

jul 21, 2012

Extreme States of Matter in Strong Interaction Physics
(Lecture Notes in Physics 841)
Helmut Satz, Springer, 239 pages
Reviewed By

W hat better time than December 21, 2012, the official scheduled date of the End of the World, to read a book on nuclear physics? Understanding the phase transition between quark plasma and hadronic matter is of immense scientific importance. Strong interactions hold hadrons together in the nucleus, but the behavior of quark-gluon plasma, which is only formed at densities above 2-3×1045 hadrons / m3 (which occurred only for the first ten microseconds after the Big Bang), is still a mystery.

Gluon-mediated interactions between spatially separated quarks are analogous to photon-mediated interactions between spatially separated charged particles, which create electromagnetic radiation. Indeed, quantum chromodynamics predicts that much of the mass in subatomic particles may come not from the quarks themselves, but from a dynamical effect of how they are confined. Inside hadrons, says Satz, quarks polarize the gluon medium, which thereby creates mass. In some models, acquisition of quark mass is described as a breaking of chiral symmetry which occurs in the hadronic phase. Thus, strong interaction physics may help us understand not just the fundamental properties of matter, but also mass and gravity.

In quark-gluon plasma, no one can hear you scream, because the speed of sound approaches zero.

In layman's terms, this means if you want to discover how the world was destroyed last December 21 (or not, depending on whether you are reading this as a spirit or as a corporeal being), this book will help you understand what happened to it.

After reviewing Ising spin glass thermodynamics and symmetry breaking, Satz discusses the remarkable result of Hagedorn and others indicating that, just as there is an absolute minimum temperature, matter may also have a maximum ultimate temperature. Even an infinite amount of energy cannot raise matter above this maximum temperature, which Hagedorn estimated to be 0.15 GeV, or 1.74 trillion degrees. This temperature marks a phase transition point to quark deconfinement. Satz describes how the Ising model can be used to create a lattice formulation of statistical QCD, and shows how pure SU(3) gauge theory and full QCD simulations both predict a sharp transition to deconfined plasma. He then discusses the phase structure of matter at high baryon densities and considers the properties of the (as-yet unobserved) quark-gluon plasma that lies beyond.

Unfortunately, the world ends next Friday, so it's all of only academic interest now. But still, fascinating stuff. Background in physics is recommended, especially for the chapter on gauge theory.

dec 16, 2012