The Secret Life of Stars – Lisa Harvey-Smith

Astronomers are curious creatures always on the lookout for new evidence of weird and unusual objects in the universe.

Astronomy has interested me since I was a kid. I remember wanting to be an astronaut and being traumatised alongside Punky Brewster as she sat in class and watched the Challenger disaster. I’d read anything I could about stars, planets and all of the other cool things in our universal backyard. I Google images of nebulas. When I got sick of the job I fell into shortly after university, I started researching (that’s book nerd code for reading textbooks) other areas I might retrain in; one of the ideas on my shortlist was astrophysics.

This astrophysics book is accessible whether you have a background in science or not. There are no complicated mathematical equations and all you need to bring with you is your interest. It’s written in a down to earth way (😜) and uses all manner of earthly things to help explain things that are out of this world.

I wasn’t always a huge fan of giving the stars names and talking about them as though they were people but it did help to get the author’s point across. Especially when a star with a name like 2MASS J18082002−5104378 B can be called Ethel instead.

There are plenty of extraordinary facts for you to enjoy in this book. A few that stood out to me were:

  • The Huge – 1.3 million Earths would fit inside the Sun. VY Canis Majoris, a red hypergiant star, is so big that 300 million Suns would fit inside it.
  • The Speedy – S5-HVS1, the fastest star in the universe, travels at over 6 million kilometres per hour (1755 kilometres every second!). No wonder HVS means “hyper-velocity star”.
  • The Awesome – There is a star classification, Ap, where the p stands for “peculiar”. Peculiar is a legitimate astrophysics word! I love it!

While we now know so much about the universe, it’s also clear just how much we don’t know. Yet. There were plenty of instances of ‘might be’, ‘we don’t know’, and ‘maybe when telescopes are more powerful’.

It’s tantalising thinking that at any time someone could discover something entirely unheard of. There’s also something strangely satisfying about imagining the team meetings where astrophysicists bounce theories around, especially the one about Przybylski’s star.

It might have gone something like this (my astrophysicists are Australian):

Astrophysicist 1: So, what do we all reckon is causing the composition of Przybylski’s star to be so weird?

Astrophysicist 2: Hmm … Could be some heavy radioactive elements we haven’t discovered yet.

Astrophysicist 3: Yeah, or it could be aliens.

Astrophysicist 1: …

Astrophysicist 2: … How do you figure?

Astrophysicist 3: The way I see it, mate, aliens could be pouring strontium and curium into the star.

Astrophysicist 1: Yeah, nah.

Astrophysicist 2: Seriously? But why would they be doing that?

Astrophysicist 3: To get our attention.

Astrophysicist 1: … You know what? You could be onto something!

Astrophysicist 2: Well, I suppose we can’t prove that it’s not aliens. Let’s add that to our list of theories.

Astrophysicist 3: Science for the win!

Now, that’s science I can get behind.

I would recommend you Google images of each star as you learn about it so you can put a stellar face to the name. Lest you read about the Stingray nebula and imagine this


when you really should be imagining this.


So, having read this book, do I think I can now talk confidently about astrophysics? Not a chance, but I can point you in the direction of a book that will entertain you while teaching you some fascinating things about the universe. And like any good non fiction book, I’m leaving this one satisfied with what I’ve learned but eager to investigate further.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

We all know the Sun, the powerhouse of our solar system, but what about Luyten’s Flare, the Rosino-Zwicky Object or Chanal’s variable star? For those whose curiosity takes them far beyond Earth’s atmosphere, The Secret Life of Stars offers a personal and readily understood introduction to some of the Galaxy’s most remarkable stars.

Each chapter connects us to the various different and unusual stars and their amazing characteristics and attributes, from pulsars, blue stragglers and white dwarfs to cannibal stars and explosive supernovae. With chapter illustrations by Eirian Chapman, this book brings to life the remarkable personalities of these stars, reminding readers what a diverse and unpredictable universe we live in and how fortunate we are to live around a stable star, our Sun.

2 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Stars – Lisa Harvey-Smith

  1. Pingback: Book Haul – 6 to 12 December 2020 – Schizanthus Nerd

  2. Pingback: A History of the Universe in 100 Stars – Florian Freistetter – Schizanthus Nerd

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