By convention there is sweetness, by convention there is bitterness, by convention hot and cold, by convention color. But in reality there are [only] atoms and the void.--Democritus (c. 460 - c. 370 B.C.)
The Greek philosopher Democritus was not a scientist, but he was on the right track. His prescient idea of atomism--which postulated a cosmos made up of hard, indivisible (hence atomic, from the Greek a-toma, "uncuttable") particles of matter moving through empty space--anticipated the road modern physics would travel.
We now know (witness Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that atoms are not indivisible; they can be split, and in the process can release enormous bursts of stored-up energy. Also, our present models of atoms reveal them to be miniature "solar systems" (electrons orbiting a central nucleus made of protons and neutrons).
But what exactly are atoms and where did they come from? Were they created in the inferno of the Big Bang some 15 billion years ago? Were they produced (and are they still being produced) in the interior of stars? Could super-dense and super-hot supernovae, which first implode and then explode with mind-boggling force, be "the magic furnace" in which atoms are created?
"Every breath you take," writes Marcus Chown, "contains atoms forged in the blistering furnaces deep inside stars. Every flower you pick contains atoms blasted into space by stellar explosions that blazed brighter than a billion suns. Every book you read contains atoms blown across unimaginable gulfs of space and time by the wind between the stars."
The Magic Furnace is the work of a literary alchemist who tranmutes the iron of complexity into the gold of lucidity. Chown's wizardry translates baffling mysteries of physics into concepts comprehensible to non-specialists. Fascinating as a detective story, the author's crystal-clear narrative allows us to follow, step by step, the unfolding story of how scientists came to understand atoms and the cosmos.
One of the strongest features of this book is Chown's mastery of transitions. Moving smoothly from one part of the story to the next, he weaves a seamless garment that avoids unseemly gaps and unsightly tears.
Throughout this work, Chown scatters fascinating anecdotes about science and scientists, taking us into the mental workshops of some of the great minds of our time. And the best news is that one need not be an Einstein to applaud when an innovative thinker has an "Aha!" moment.