Chemical Cosmos - book review

Chemical Cosmos - book review
Steve Miller’s The Chemical Cosmos: A Guided Tour is an astronomy book about chemistry – or perhaps a chemistry book about astronomy. But whether you paid attention in your high school chemistry class, or avoided it, this guided tour is an engrossing one. It takes us from the baby Universe through the first stars, the formation of solar systems and to our search for the origins of life.

Our tour guide isn’t Miller himself, but an astonishing molecule called H-three-plus. Can a molecule have a personality? Yes, when Steve Miller is telling the story. H-three-plus comes across as a swashbuckling, to-the-rescue superhero molecule. Need your giant gas cloud to cool down so that it will collapse into a star? H-three-plus is your guy. Not enough energy in cold interstellar space to get chemical reactions going for making molecules? Hey, here’s a job for H-three-plus.

The tour begins when the infant Universe is around 350,000 years old. Trust me, that is young for a universe. By that age our universe had cooled enough for chemistry to begin. It's had some 13.77 billion years since then to become quite remarkable.

In addition to the science, Miller tells us about the people who made the science – the theorists, the chemists, the physicists, the radio astronomers on mountaintops searching for elusive spectra. (“Spectroscopy is to chemistry what fingerprinting is to criminology.”) We learn about what they were trying to find out and how they went about it.

Miller has considerable first-hand knowledge of astrochemistry and it obviously interests him. But this is no weighty academic tome, for he is an experienced communicator writing for an audience of non-specialists, and giving an unusual slant to astronomy. Although astrochemistry is now a major area of astronomy, it hasn’t really been given a popular treatment before.

The good
The book is well-structured and unifies a number of different elements of astronomy. Miller is careful to explain the technical vocabulary that you need to discuss the subject. The writing is clear and he has a light and humorous touch. Since people often ask “How do they know that?” it’s good to have a book that tells you.

It’s great learning about something new, and one of the many things I learned from the book was in the chapter about the Solar System’s giant planets. I’m entranced by aurorae and I knew that earthly aurorae are created by the interaction between the atmosphere and charged particles from the Sun. I also knew that Jupiter had brilliant and energetic aurorae, but didn’t realize that the biggest contributor of particles isn’t the Sun. It’s the volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon Io. Surprising place, the Solar System.

For each chapter there is an annotated reference list and suggestions for further reading. This is splendid! I wish more authors would do it.

The not-so-good
It made me laugh to read that at the end of 2010 Voyager 1 left the Solar System and entered interstellar space. I've lost count of the number of times Voyager 1 has supposedly left the Solar System. But as of August 2013, the probe has officially still not quite escaped the Solar System.

Opinions will vary about the detail of some of the explanations. Personally, I’m willing to accept that carbon is adaptable and can form all kinds of structures. Several pages of examples left me cross-eyed. This isn’t a criticism of the book. It’s reassurance that if you find some sections hard-going, you can skim them without losing the plot.

Yet I would have liked more graphics in some places. For example, describing what a graph would look like isn’t quite the same as providing a graph. The section on nucleic acids in the final chapter also called out for some diagrams.

And a real clanger at the end! The book cites a piece of research claiming the discovery of arsenic-eating bacteria in a California lake. The news of this research was released early in December 2010. It was immediately followed by criticisms from other researchers, the gist of them being that “their study lacks crucial experimental evidence to support this claim.” By 2013 the criticism was stronger and research elsewhere has been unable to confirm the original finding.

I enjoyed reading the book and learned a number of new things. I think anyone with an interest in astronomy or chemistry would find it interesting. Specifically, on the chemistry side, chemistry teachers could get some pretty exciting ideas from it to enthuse their students. Finding out how “impossible” chemistry happens in the depths of space might liven up a lesson for senior high school students and college too.

Steve Miller, The Chemical Cosmos: A Guided Tour, Springer, 2011, ISBN 978-1441984432

Note: I read an online copy of the book to which the publishers allowed access for review purposes.

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