Journey to the stars

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Children of the Stars: Our Origin, Evolution and Destiny

Cambridge University Press: 2002. 280 pp. £19.95, $28
Starstruck? Events such as the appearance of Comet Hale–Bopp fuel the public's interest in astronomy.

Astronomy is the most awe-inspiring science. It seeks to understand the Universe: all time and matter, inconceivable distances, and ultimate questions of beginnings and endings, of life and existence. Generations of astronomers have written books to share the excitement of discoveries with the public, and the visually and scientifically stunning images from the Hubble Space Telescope and planetary exploration have generated a large number of recent popular books.

Scientists writing for the public have the difficult challenge of carefully explaining science yet maintaining a writing style that captivates lay readers. Children of the Stars and Disturbing the Solar System come close, but fall on either side of the ideal. They both range further than the Solar System, but this, as the human home, is their focus.

The perspective of Children of the Stars is spelled out by the title and subtitle. It is the now-familiar tale that humans are derived from stardust — a retelling and updating of popular books by George Gamow, Carl Sagan and others. Daniel R. Altschuler covers a lot of territory, including the size and structure of the Galaxy, how the Sun works, dying stars as creators of heavy elements, planetary formation, the geology of the Earth, the origin and working of life, giant impacts, and the human despoilation of our planet.

Altschuler brings a passion and attitude to his writing that makes Children of the Stars lively and personal. He delights in fascinating factoids (our brain contains as many neurons as there are stars in the Galaxy; there are more bacteria in your gut than there are humans on Earth), and provides humorous comments. Following his statement that some bacteria live happily in a polluted river, he adds: “Well, I have not actually asked them if they are happy.” There is also a romantic speculativeness — for example, the 28-day human menstrual cycle may date from 500 million years ago when “biological clocks first might have been set in primitive living things” – that may make the reader question the scientific foundation of other statements.

Disturbing the Solar System: Impacts, Close Encounters, and Coming Attractions

Princeton University Press: 2002. 376 pp. $29.95, £19.95

Disturbing the Solar System is a very different book that covers many of the same topics. Whereas Altschuler often devotes only a paragraph or two to a subject, Rubin commonly provides a fuller history, including failures of understanding along the way. Most of the chapters are modest revisions of articles previously published in the Griffith Observer and other popular astronomy magazines. Each chapter ends with an obviously tacked-on transition paragraph to the next. The chapters have a well-defined focus, but also sometimes a pedantic completeness — such as listing all the moons of a planet — that fails to add to the story. Unlike Altschuler, Rubin is nearly invisible as an author: the word “I” occurs infrequently. The book is scientifically accurate, and the writing is quietly competent.

Rubin cannot be accused of merely focusing on trendy, exciting topics. Nearly half of his chapters represent his research interests in meteorites, asteroids and impact cratering, which are important but not yet over-told tales. Two chapters on the Galaxy and ice ages seem out of place here. The book ends with the now de rigueur chapters on astrobiology, including a fascinating look at how humans might react if aliens were detected.

The books' dust-jackets suggest that these two books are aimed at the same general-public audience, but the books are quite different. Altschuler provides some thought-provoking one-liner titbits, while Rubin offers more thorough explanations. The level of science in Altschuler's book is similar to my son's eighth-grade textbooks, whereas Rubin's book approaches an introductory college text. Altschuler's book is a fun read, perhaps a transcript of well-received lectures he gives to the public; Rubin's volume could be used as a reference. The look and feel of the books reflect their writing styles. Most two-page spreads in Altschuler's book contain a colour photo (unfortunately with difficult-to-read blue captions), whereas Rubin's contains a much more limited number of mostly older, black-and-white photos, graphs and diagrams.

The science section of my local public library is overrun with glossy new books that sensationalize or water down science, throw-away volumes that end up a year or two later on the library sale tables. These two books rise above that level. Altschuler's Children of the Stars would be a good gift to excite anyone — nieces, nephews, parents and professionals in other fields — about the wondrous connections between humans and the cosmos. And for those who want more meat, Rubin's Disturbing the Solar System is hearty fare.

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Wood, C. Journey to the stars. Nature 419, 341 (2002) doi:10.1038/419341a

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