Lecture notes given at the 43rd Saas Fee Advanced
School, March 11-16, 2013, Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland.
Abstract: Interstellar space is filled with a dilute mixture of charged particles, atoms, molecules and dust grains, called the interstellar medium (ISM). Understanding its physical properties and dynamical behavior is of pivotal importance to many areas of astronomy and astrophysics. Galaxy formation and evolution, the formation of stars, cosmic nucleosynthesis, the origin of large complex, prebiotic molecules and the abundance, structure and growth of dust grains which constitute the fundamental building blocks of planets, all these processes are intimately coupled to the physics of the interstellar medium. However, despite its importance, its structure and evolution is still not fully understood. Observations reveal that the interstellar medium is highly turbulent, consists of different chemical phases, and is characterized by complex structure on all resolvable spatial and temporal scales. Our current numerical and theoretical models describe it as a strongly coupled system that is far from equilibrium and where the different components are intricately linked together by complex feedback loops. Describing the interstellar medium is truly a multi-scale and multi-physics problem. In these lecture notes we introduce the microphysics necessary to better understand the interstellar medium. We review the relations between large-scale and small-scale dynamics, we consider turbulence as one of the key drivers of galactic evolution, and we review the physical processes that lead to the formation of dense molecular clouds and that govern stellar birth in their interior.
The paper is in pdf format.