Sunday, 16 March 2014

THE MAGIC FURNACE: THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGIN OF ATOMS by MARCUS CHOWN

Nuclear fusion has long been the holy grail of energy production. It is the process going on inside the sun, but importantly has created most of the heavier elements in the universe. Image credit:SOHO-EIT Consortium, ESA, NASA.
A Book Review byANDY FLEMING

'If the atoms that make up the world around us could tell their stories, each and every one of them would sing a tale to dwarf the greatest epics of literature', Chown proclaims in the prologue of this book. The work is his attempt to chronicle humankind’s efforts, commencing with Democritus in Ancient Greece over two millennia ago, to discover what the smallest constituents of matter are, and from where they came.

It’s an enthralling, comprehensive history lesson in the development of astronomy and atomic physics, encapsulating key moments and discoveries in the search to answer the question of why 98% of the mass of visible matter in the universe is composed of hydrogen and helium, and where the remaining two per cent of ‘metals’ came from.


Marcus Chown, author of  The Magic Furnace.
In one of the greatest all-time detective stories featuring an all-star cast, the research of such notable scientists as Lavoisier, Hooke, Boyle, Dalton, Mendeleev, Davy, Faraday, Avogadro, Thomson, Curie, Rutherford, Chadwick, Einstein and Hoyle is all beautifully woven together to arrive at one inescapable conclusion: that all of the chemical elements from beryllium and boron to iron in the periodic table were exothermically cooked up in the cores of dying red giant stars and vomited into the interstellar gas once those stars died.


The jigsaw puzzle was finally completed when the endothermic origin of the elements heavier than iron was identified as supernovae, the result of the detonations of high-mass stars, at the end of their short lives. It turns out that we, and everything we see were literally ‘made in heaven’.

From the synthesis of hydrogen and helium in the Big Bang to the discovery of such helium in the chromosphere of the Sun, from star-forming regions of interstellar gas to white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes, from Newton’s prism to the development of spectroscopy and spectrometry, from the discovery of electrons, protons and neutrons to electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, from Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity to the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium and beyond, each step towards our contemporary understanding of astrophysics and atomic synthesis is both logically conveyed and clearly explained.

Chown’s writing style is both inspiring and captivating, and you will have difficulty putting this book down. Indeed, on a re-reading I found it just as captivating.

It is essential background reading for anyone wanting to learn about the lives of stars, astrophysics and the reasons behind the abundances of the chemical elements.





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