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I am interested in astronomy/astrophysics, but I am not science major (I am a computer science graduate). Facts and results of the field are presented to the public without showing how these facts/results got known or inferred. And I have that curiosity to know how we know what we know about the universe (either observationally or mathematically).

So my question is, what book(s) do you recommend for someone who has knowledge of

  • algebra, trigonometry and geometry
  • college-level calculus
  • classical mechanics

and does not get intimidated by mathematical language?

I expect the book(s) to answer questions like (not necessarily all of the questions, but questions of the same level and kind as these):

  • How do we know how distant from the earth a celestial body (for example, a star) is?
  • How do we know the volume/mass of celestial bodies?
  • How do we know the materials that a planet is made of?
  • How do we know that our solar system orbits around the center of the galaxy?
  • How do we calculate the total mass of the galaxy?
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Before answering, please see our policy on resource recommendation questions. Please write substantial answers that detail the style, content, and prerequisites of the book, paper or other resource. Explain the nature of the resource so that readers can decide which one is best suited for them rather than relying on the opinions of others. Answers containing only a reference to a book or paper will be removed!

I think this should be community wiki. – user Jun 16 '11 at 12:03
This question brings to mind two old but mandatory quotes from Richard Feynman. And in the form of moving pictures, no less: here, and here. :) – Grant Thomas Jun 28 '11 at 17:34

Astrophysics is a big field. There are a variety of resources that you can use if you'd like to learn about how we know what we know. Most good textbooks will teach you this. In fact, I've even read a standard community-college level astronomy book (which contained basically no mathematics at all) that conceptually explained how we can infer certain things - the mass of stars in a binary system, the distance to objects using parallax, etc.

One textbook that I've heard many great things about is Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, by Carroll & Ostlie. It is a fairly large book, containing not only concepts but the mathematical techniques used to discover them.

If you want to learn about a highly specialized technique or discovery, oftentimes you can read the scientific journal article that published the finding. There are many online resources. A very good one is arXiv. For example, if you wanted to look into the discovery that Vega is a fast-rotating star, you might read this article that describes it.

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WHOA! Carroll & Ostlie was exactly what I was going to recommend. I know the scientific textbook field is a little smaller community than, say, vampire novels, but seeing that kind of thing still gets me. I used the first edition in my astrophysics-major-level intro astronomy class. I know there is at least a second edition. I think they refer to a decent number of the touchstone experiments in the field. The Michelson and Morley experiment is one thing, but other insights don't have such a neat genesis, having been built up gradually by lots of people. The answers you want might not exist. – Andrew Jun 14 '11 at 22:26
Carroll and Ostlie is a bit intimidating, but if you really want to understand Astronomy and Astrophysics, it is a very good reference text. Some also refer to it as BOB, the Big Orange Book. – acmshar Jun 16 '11 at 16:05

As a general rule, particularly in the sciences, the best people to ask for recommendations for books are second year graduate students in the field.

You really get to know how well you learned something when you need to use it; for example, in a class for which it is a prerequisite, and you get to know which references are the best when you need them. In the first few years of graduate school, you end up in classes with other students from a variety of different schools, who used a variety of different textbooks for the material needed for the undergraduate degree. Unless the students in a given department are particularly antisocial, after a year of classes together the group will have learned which undergrad textbooks are the most useful.

Yes, this applies even to introductory level textbooks.

It's out of date now, but when it was current Frank Shu's The Physical Universe was as good as I could find.

If there is a particular field you want to get "up to date" in, the Annual Review for astronomy and astrophysics is a great resource, but something you are likely to need a good library for.

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I tend to agree with Eric, Annual Reviews are the best for getting the whole scope of one or particular subject in astronomy. – Tigran Khanzadyan Jun 16 '11 at 10:36
Annual Review - very nice, I did not know about this. – voithos Jun 20 '11 at 5:32
Is it still worthwhile to really study Shu's book, or is it too old and will it fill my head with wrong information? – Jeroen Moons Feb 21 '13 at 13:55

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