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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Lucid Exposition of Physics for the Non-Specialist
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,...
Published on 30 July 2001 by M. P. Chown

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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. Encouraged by the very positive reviews on Amazon I looked forward to an enjoyable & instructive read. I hate to be a party pooper but I was so disappointed. The story told is undoubtedly a...
Published on 6 May 2009 by J Wheeler


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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Lucid Exposition of Physics for the Non-Specialist, 30 July 2001
By 
M. P. Chown (London, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
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.
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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
This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
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
By 
ian@ncmedia.co.uk (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
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
By 
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This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
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
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent guide for the layman to this complex topic, 3 May 2000
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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating - a truly unputdownable science book!, 9 Oct 1999
By A Customer
Marcus Chown's Afterglow of Creation was a fascinating account of the search for 'the face of God' - the faint, faint infrared glow still left shining in the universe from the Big Bang. That book was a wonderful exercise in scientific story-telling, combining lovely insights into the universe we inhabit with the drama of the race, between different groups of scientists, to be first to find 'the face of God'. Chown uses a similar - and similarly successful - approach in The Magic Furnace, taking us through the amazing series of discoveries that have led to our understanding of the nature of matter, and how that matter is made. The prose is highly readable, the pace of the book gripping (yes, really gripping!), and Chown strikes the balance just right between giving us enough of an idea of what the complex science is about without losing us in a welter of arcane detail. A super book, I couldn't put it down - and I'm no cosmologist!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for those of us find physics impossible!!, 7 Jan 2007
This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
I am a science teacher. My specialist subjects are Chemistry and Biology and I find physics very difficult to grasp. This obviously poses a problem when I have to answer challenging questions from students.

However, this book has given me an insight into all those theories that seemed so weird, especially those relating to atoms. I thoroughly recommend this book for non-physics specialists. It is an easy and fun read. I actually enjoy physics now and frequently quote sections to my class!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars So near, so far, 6 May 2009
By 
J Wheeler "Weez" (Huddersfield, West Yorkshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
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. Encouraged by the very positive reviews on Amazon I looked forward to an enjoyable & instructive read. I hate to be a party pooper but I was so disappointed. The story told is undoubtedly a fascinating, albeit complex, one & I appreciated the approach to the subject, & the persons introduced. However it cried out for diagrams, tables, & graphs. I found myself having to read & re-read sections carefully where an appropriate illustration would have helped so much - for example, nuclear binding energies versus atomic number. Having just read "Big Bang" I can only compare this book unfavourably. For the same price Singh has more than twice as many pages with helpful illustrations aplenty. I found especially towards the end of "The Magic Furnace" the writing tended to become more condensed.
Charles Darwin intended "The Origin of Species" only to be the precursor to a much larger, expanded work. In my opinion it is a great pity that Marcus Chown did not view this book in the same light & expand & illustrate it. The subject matter is fascinating but the story is spoiled by poor presentation.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The stardust connection., 20 Feb 2008
By 
M. Woodman "hikeandbikemike" (Exeter, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Paperback)
Read this book for any number of reasons. Read it if you want to know more about atoms. Read it to find out how stars work. Read about the creation of elements: a story that that has spanned billions of years. Whatever the reason, once you start you will finish because it is such a good read.

There are three linked narratives. The first, Atoms, starts with the earliest recorded notions (ca 470BC) and touches on all the strokes of genius and lucky chance by which these initially vague entities were found to exist in a profusion of varieties and became the foundations of modern science. The second, Stars, begins at about the same time - with the sun as a ball of hot iron - then makes much slower progress than the atom story, becoming patently a fiction and stalling around the mid-nineteenth century. Fifty years later the two themes merge and the action picks up in an exciting way.

Whether you have a scientific background, or your take on atoms is as sketchy as those of Democritus, you are almost bound to be continually fascinated. All the basic physics is introduced here in an effortless way. I found myself reading about discoveries and famous names remembered from school science days, but seeing them now in a fresh light: as a fast-moving history of achievements by some amazing people.

A third story develops in the background: it starts with the Big Bang and takes in the origin of atoms, then of quasars and galaxies, then stars and more atoms, then supernovae and yet more atoms . . . and ends with us. In a conventional textbook it would be recounted in plodding systematic detail, but this is by no means a conventional textbook. You end up knowing all about this other story. It's just that you get there by a much more compelling route.

If I have a criticism it is that the author's insertion of analogy and simile is not always helpful and can be wearing when overdone. No matter, this is one of the best books I have read for some time.
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The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms
The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms by Marcus Chown (Paperback - 3 Aug 2000)
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