Author: John Gribbin
Genre: Non-fiction/Science/Theoretical Science/Historical Science
Rating: * *
Review:The atoms in your body were forged in the nuclear fires at the heart of a nearby star, or in the exploding supernova that marked its death. This intimate connection between life on a small blue planet and creative destruction in the heavens is a fetish of popular cosmology. Twentieth-century science delivered many startling facts about the universe, but the one Joni Mitchell sang about at Woodstock is still a clear favourite with science writers. We are stardust.
It is a wondrous truth, in a slack-jawed way. And it is wondrous that some particularly complicated clumps of stardust have been able to figure out where they came from. But these facts are often taken to mean much more than this. The grand sweep of this evolutionary story has been used time and again to dispute the physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous conclusion to his account of the very beginnings of the universe in The First Three Minutes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Just telling a technical story, though, is a weak response to Weinberg’s assertion. It only works if the scientific cosmology can be turned back into a religious one. But, as two books which tell the stardust story in unusual detail demonstrate, the attempt always falls short. However well we understand how the universe came to be, it does not tell us what the point is.
John Gribbin’s new Stardust and Marcus Chown’s The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms, just out in paperback, cover much the same ground. Both use the tried-and-tested pop-science formula of recounting the formation of the elements and interweaving the story of how their stellar origins were pieced together. This is partly because otherwise the atomic narrative alone is too slender to justify a book. The American Ken Croswell did the job pretty well in a single chapter a few years ago, in The Alchemy of the Heavens. Still, it is one of the better scientific stories of the last century, uniting the physics of the microworld with the history of the cosmos.
It brings together the extraordinary understanding astrophysicists now have of what happens inside stars with cosmologists’ account of the emergence of matter as the early universe expanded and cooled after the big bang. The primordial fireball generated hydrogen and helium, the lightest and still the most common elements. The longer-burning nuclear furnaces of the stars eventually cooked up the heavier ones, relatively rare but vital for making planets and, ultimately, living things. The rarer explosions of supernovae finally produced the heaviest atoms of all, and scattered the whole elemental cocktail through the far reaches of space.
Of the two efforts, Chown’s version moves along more briskly, though it takes a while to get going. His tale of atoms extends back to the Greeks, but the interesting part doesn’t really begin until we get to Eddington’s 20th-century ideas about what happens inside stars. Even then, the confines of a discovery narrative mean that each new scientist we meet is on the verge of cracking the next puzzle. Every chapter ends with a question, and the right researcher – George Gamow, perhaps, or Fred Hoyle – pops up with the right answer in the next one. Occasional qualifications in the light of later theory hint at a messier process than this, but the overall impression is of a linear convergence on the truth.
Gribbin gives more of the twists and turns of the science, but also tells the reader too much about who did what, when. Like Chown he is admirably clear on the basics of the science, assuming almost nothing, not even ideas like “atom” or “nucleus”. But Gribbin has now written 30 or 40 books on modern physics and astronomy, and there is a whiff of the production line about this one. Even his enthusiasm for these discoveries, and the ingenuity of the scientists who made them, seems rather routine.
So, nowadays, does the final chapter in the story. Stardust blasted into space bombarded the surface of the newborn Earth, bringing heavy atoms combined into complex molecules. It was not so many steps from those to the even more complex chemicals found in living cells. A billion extinct solar furnaces spread the seeds of life throughout the galaxy.
Such a benign vision of a hospitable cosmos is very appealing: everyone wants to feel wanted. The science may not reveal the hand of God, but it provides some consolation for those who miss Him. The cosmos may be unimaginably vast and awesomely old, but it is not indifferent. We are surely meant to be here. We have a role in this vast scheme of things. We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.
In fact, this rhetoric of re-enchantment has been prominent in popular science for 20 years now. The late Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a book-length riposte to Weinberg, brought it to a high pitch in 1980. For Sagan, the universe displayed a unified evolutionary process, and we were at its peak. Sagan presented science deliberately figured as myth, an effort taken further still by writers such as Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. In their aptly titled The Universe Story, they retell the cosmic epic in would-be poetic language, even giving the various players names. The supernova that bestowed heavy elements on our corner of the galaxy is dubbed Tiamat, after a creature of middle-eastern myth from whose dismembered body heaven and earth were created.
There is none of this kind of thing in the books of Gribbin or Chown. They regard themselves as proper science writers, not myth-makers. The hint of a quasi-religious consolation is still there, but watered down. All Gribbin will say is that “life and the universe are inextricably intertwined”. Chown assures us that “we are far more intimately connected to events in the cosmos than anyone dared imagine”.
Yet these are very half-hearted invocations of the larger meanings of the story claimed by Sagan or Swimme, and suggest that this stream of popular science may have run its course. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees’s short and admirably lucid introduction to modern cosmology in Just Six Numbers helps to show why. The outlines of the familiar elemental story are here too, along with details of another intriguing feature of the universe that has often been interpreted in much the same way. The more we understand about the forces shaping cosmic events, the more they seem selected to suit us. There is no particular reason yet known why gravity, for example, is incredibly weak compared with the forces that affect atoms at very close range. Yet if it were just a little stronger, the universe would be nasty, brutish and short-lived.
As Rees relates, there are a whole clutch of other numbers of cosmic significance that are measured rather than derived from some theory. Yet to have a cosmos that is long-lasting and can build complex structures like galaxies, planetary systems and people turns out to require just the right numbers – whether we are looking at the amount of stuff it contains, the force that holds atomic nuclei together or the smoothness of the early universe.
Using his crucial numbers, Rees builds up a compelling picture of our current understanding of the huge and ancient universe in which we dwell. He has two clear messages. Physics and cosmology are now joined in an arc of knowledge in which theories of the most fundamental particles feed directly into accounts of the development of the whole universe. And though cosmology often stretches credulity, most of the story is as soundly based as, say, the theory of the Earth in which drifting tectonic plates account for the movement of continents.
But does the cosmos itself have a message? Rees’s even-handed treatment of the question shows how the moral of the stories of science is never given: it has to be supplied by their popularisers. As Rees says, we are stardust, but that is just another way of saying that everything on earth is made from nuclear ash.
Overall the books was informative but in places it can be outdated and radically ancient in his theories and assumptions of the stars and the ways the universe works in conjunction.
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