Most astronomy departments offer two introductory courses: one for majors and one for nonmajors. Stan Owocki’s new textbook, Fundamentals of Astrophysics, is designed to accompany the former. A professor at the University of Delaware, Owocki is well known for his research in the field of stellar astrophysics and has extensive experience teaching undergraduate courses. He intends his new book to fill in the gap between textbooks for nonscience majors and upper-level astrophysics textbooks. But does it succeed?

The 6.5-meter primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope deployed during a 2020 test at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The 6.5-meter primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope deployed during a 2020 test at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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I’ll get to the point: I really like Fundamentals of Astrophysics. Will you? I think it depends on what purpose you think a textbook serves. Is it meant to be a tome that you’ll refer to for an entire career or a readable book that might need to leave out some rigor in the name of clarity? In other words, should a textbook include every possible topic or equation you might want to cover so you can pick and choose which sections to assign? Or should the book remain simpler and be supplemented by classroom instruction?

Fundamentals of Astrophysics falls firmly in the simple and concise, but readable, category, which I believe is a good thing. My own biased view is that undergraduates are unlikely to read a textbook if it’s not approachable, and Owocki’s book is conversational and supremely readable. Readers will feel both the author’s excitement for the material and his depth of experience explaining concepts at the undergraduate level. For me, it brought back memories of reading physics textbooks by David J. Griffiths, a rare author who isn’t afraid to speak to students in casual language.

Not insignificantly, a physical copy of Fundamentals of Astrophysics also weighs a lot less than comparable introductory astrophysics textbooks. It totals only 290 pages and is available as an extremely portable softcover. Perhaps, like me, you (or your students) will find yourself toting this book with you to coffee shops or perusing it on your couch. One particularly nice, unique feature of Owocki’s text is its division into many short subchapters, each of which is accompanied by “Quick Questions” alongside the more standard, substantial “Exercises.”

That said, there were moments when I worried that Owocki’s language would be unclear to an undergraduate seeing this material for the first time. Terms like “angular size,” for example, pop up early in the book without prior introduction. Moreover, some of my enjoyment while reading came from seeing Owocki make connections between concepts often presented in separate contexts by turning them around and looking at them from different angles. But trying to understand those sophisticated connections might overwhelm some students. Owocki also often resorts to unfortunate turns of phrase like “It should become obvious,” which physics professors have become infamous for. In that regard, the proof is likely in the pudding—I’d want to share this book with my students to get their direct feedback.

In my anecdotal experience, professors who teach introductory astrophysics for majors do not agree on a go-to textbook. Two common alternatives to Owocki’s book are An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics (2nd ed., 2007) by Bradley Carroll and Dale Ostlie and Astronomy: A Physical Perspective (2nd ed., 2003) by Marc Kutner.

Carroll and Ostlie’s book sits squarely in the category of comprehensive introductory textbooks and thus includes significantly more physics than Owocki’s. For example, when discussing spectroscopy, Owocki merely mentions that it provides a “bar code” that encodes atomic abundances. But Carroll and Ostlie’s coverage mentions the Bohr model, quantum mechanics, the Rydberg formula, and Zeeman splitting. On the flip side, Owocki discusses concepts that professors might take for granted but that undergraduate students may have not yet internalized, such as the idea that telescopes are “light buckets” and that the number of photons they can collect thus scales directly with the mirror’s area.

Kutner’s book sits between the other two. Although it’s more comprehensive than Fundamentals of Astrophysics, it too is clearly aimed at early-stage undergraduates. It’s the only one of the three to walk students through mathematical derivations and example problems. It also includes many color illustrations and has extensive coverage of solar-system astronomy.

All three textbooks cover stellar astrophysics and galactic structure and evolution, but Owocki’s discussion of solar-system science and planet formation is lacking compared with the other two books. He falls into the trap of providing too many facts but little in the way of unifying planetary-related physics. His section on cosmology, on the other hand, is more extensive and up to date than the coverage by either Carroll and Ostlie or Kutner.

In short, Fundamentals of Astrophysics is a welcome addition to the world of undergraduate astronomy textbooks. It may be a good fit for you if you teach astrophysics to majors. But before assigning it to your class, you should peruse it to make sure it covers your preferred topics. Whether you choose to adopt Owocki’s book or not, you’ll enjoy the read.

Colette Salyk is an associate professor of astronomy at Vassar College, where she teaches courses on planets and observational astronomy. Along with Kevin Lewis, she coauthored the 2020 undergraduate textbook Introductory Notes on Planetary Science: The Solar System, Exoplanets and Planet Formation.