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The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms [Hardcover]

Marcus Chown
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb 2001
"Every breath you take 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." Thus begins The Magic Furnace, an eloquent, extraordinary account of how scientists unraveled the mystery of atoms, and helped to explain the dawn of life itself. The historic search for atoms and their stellar origins is truly one of the greatest detective stories of science. In effect, it offers two epics intertwined: the birth of atoms in the Big Bang and the evolution of stars and how they work. Neither could be told without the other, for the stars contain the key to unlocking the secret of atoms, and the atoms the solution to the secret of the stars. Marcus Chown leads readers through the major theories and experiments that propelled the search for atomic understanding, with engaging characterizations of the major atomic thinkers-from Democritus in ancient Greece to Binning and Rohrer in twentieth-century New York. He clarifies the science, explaining with enthusiasm the sequence of breakthroughs that proved the existence of atoms as the "alphabet of nature" and the discovery of subatomic particles and atomic energy potential. From there, he engagingly chronicles the leaps of insight that eventually revealed the elements, the universe, our world, and ourselves to be a product of two ultimate furnaces: the explosion of the Big Bang and the interior of stars such as supernovae and red giants. Chown successfully makes these massive concepts accessible for students, professionals, and science enthusiasts. His story sheds light on all of us, for in essence, we are all stardust.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc (Feb 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195143051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195143058
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.7 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 5,062,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

If only because of its grand scale cosmology can bring out the worst in science writers. But The Magic Furnace is as unputdownable as any thriller as it unifies the very big and the very small in a single coherent vision of Creation.

In a cosmos dominated by hydrogen and helium all the other elements make up a mere two percent of the universe's mass. It was not always so. There was a time when those other elements did not even exist. The stuff which we're made from was not fully formed by the Big Bang. So where did it-- where did we--come from?

Chown dovetails two histories: the story of how we came to know how stars are born, grow old and die, and the story of how we investigated the atom and came to appreciate how different elements are related. This is no contrived juxtaposition. The elements from which we are made were assembled by stars and distributed by supernovae. We are--literally--stardust.

All scientific histories are simplifications after the event but Chown, in something of the spirit of Local Heroes' Adam Hart-Davis, brings a biographer's eye to those--from Greek philosopher Democritus onwards--who brought us to our present understanding.

By Chown's account, the universe seems uncannily friendly to the formation of organics and ultimately, life. Chown's take on this "anthropomorphic" (and quasi-religious) version of the world is a model of balanced and responsible speculation and provides the fitting conclusion to this fascinating account. --Simon Ings --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Chown's book offers readers and their inner atoms an enjoyable introduction to that history." -- Craig J. Hogan, Science"In a series of artfully connected and well-crafted stories, Marcus Chown traces humanity's 2,500-year quest to understand the nature and origin of matter." -Fred Bortz, The Dallas Morning News

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
In the mists of antiquity, it must have occurred to many people to ask the question: what happens if I take this stick, this piece of cloth, this clay tablet, and cut it in half, then in half again? Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Glowing Account 26 April 2002
By A Customer
I have owned a copy of this book for some time before I got around to reading. And when I did I could not put it down. Marcus Chown spins an enthralling historical account of how we learned about the cosmic synthesis of elements.
My favorite account is about Fred Hoyle's pursuit to solve the riddle of how carbon - the stuff of life - was manufactured in the bowls of stars. The problem was that the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen to heavier elements could not bridge the gap from beryllium-8 to carbon-12. But Hoyle knew it had to happen because humans existed!
We are carbon-based beings and Hoyle argued that after two helium-4 atoms fused to beryllium-8, a third helium-4 quickly fused to give carbon-12. He calculated that in the bowls of a red giant star the energies of beryllium-8 and helium-4 matched a resonance energy that produced carbon-12. Tests by Willy Fowler confirmed Hoyle's prediction: carbon-12 has indeed the predicted energy resonance! Never, according to Chown, has an anthropic argument been used to make a scientific prediction.
When you start reading this book, make sure you have no other pressing engagements. You won't want to stop reading. Chown has a wonderful, lucid style.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All science should be taught like this! 12 Jan 2000
Marcus Chown is an incredibly gifted author. He somehow manages to impart (what could otherwise have been hard boring facts) into a compelling and passionate account of man's unquenchable thirst for knowledge - and in particular the search for the atom. From the very first page, the reader is gripped and taken on an incredible journey, back through time as we follow early scientists in their sometimes heartbreaking endeavours to discover the atom. Marcus Chown has the ability to make science appealing and enormously exciting. Readers will not be intimidated (nor patronised) by the subject matter, instead they will be left wanting more. This book lends itself brilliantly to either a television documentary or indeed a drama serialisation where it can reach an even wider audience. More please, Mr. Chown!
Pamela Young Erith Kent
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome reading 6 Feb 2001
This book is absolutely outstanding. The author is clearly very familiar with the subject and manages to combine humour and history with a huge amount of teaching.
Really enjoyable
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reads like a detective novel 23 Jun 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I completed a physics degree at Leeds University 22yrs ago. They taught us astrophysics. I could do the equations, but couldn't see a big picture. This book gives the picture of how our atoms were made, why we know how they were made, inspite of the billions of years and light years we are from the atomic furnaces. It starts with Democritus, and ends with supernovae. In between, Marcus Chown takes the reader through all the significant scientific discoveries. He gets down into the personal details of the researchers, what they were up against, what they had at their disposal. He makes clear the bizarre connection between particle-physics and astrophysics. Each sub-chapter is headed by a snappy title, a bit like the scene-descriptions in silent movies. For me, two of the crucial facts he got across are: the significance of Iron-56; and Fred Hoyle's bold but crucial claim of the existence of a yet undiscovered excited state of ionised Carbon-12. Read this and you will know why scientist really do know much of what is going on inside of stars.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is an extremely well-written guide to the basics of atoms and the gradual process that mankind went through to discover what we know today.
It is written in a manner that requires no specific previous scientific knowledge to understand what is being communicated. Indeed the format is that of a cliffhanger novel. I took this book on holiday with me and could not put it down. Definitely a keeper and worth rereading! I am now searching for more books on the subject. Marcus, please keep up the good work.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding - science as a novel
I must confess I don't normally read science books, but this one absolutely stood out. The author managed to describe the story in an entertaining and engaging manner that made for... Read more
Published 5 months ago by ChrisG
5.0 out of 5 stars Atoms rule!
I just love reading anything by Marcus Chown. This one really focus on atoms and how they are made and what powers the stars. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Riffs
5.0 out of 5 stars consciousness raising
Chown is a fantastic science writer but more importantly a brilliant story teller. It's this ability to recount the history of the atom in such an entertaining way that prompted me... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Daniel Kolasinski
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy to read and understand
I am not a sciientist but this book was so well written it presented me with no problems. Very enjoyable, informative and with a light touch.
Published 18 months ago by Les Serff
5.0 out of 5 stars A very readable account of how we cam to understand what atoms are and...
I originally bought this book to try and satisfy my interest in the structure of the nucleus. While there is some limited, but interesting, coverage of this topic the book is... Read more
Published on 22 Feb 2012 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm useless at Science, but even I was fascinated by this
From start to finish you are whizzed away on a journey that I can only describe as breathtaking. I truly am the pits at Science and have been since childhood but I understood so... Read more
Published on 21 Jan 2011 by Shrews
4.0 out of 5 stars review
Explains what it says on the cover but comes across a bit dry at times. Needs dedication to get through it.
Published on 16 Dec 2010 by me
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good!
This is a fantastic book. It is not "heavy" and reveals so much related to the scientific discoveries. One reads it and does not feel how the time goes by. Read more
Published on 22 April 2010 by AndD
3.0 out of 5 stars Quite difficult to follow some times, otherwise good
Before I begin let me tell you that I have read a lot of pop. science books. I think of myself familiar with physic terms, and most other books I've read, even if some were somehow... Read more
Published on 1 Jan 2010 by George Spiros
2.0 out of 5 stars So near, so far
Having become interested in the Big Bang & Nucleosynthesis, I came across this book in the further reading section of Simon Singh's "Big Bang" which I had thoroughly enjoyed. Read more
Published on 6 May 2009 by J Wheeler
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