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The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms Paperback – 3 Aug 2000

4.7 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (3 Aug. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099578018
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099578017
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 389,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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 per cent 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's 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

Review

"A clear introduction to a fascinating area of physics and astronomy. Chown is to be congratulated on a beautifully crafted book." (New Scientist)

"Keeps readers anxious for the next puzzle piece to fall into place. It reads like a Sherlock Holmes novel" (Astronomy)

"The work of a literary alchemist who tranmutes the iron of complexity into the gold of lucidity" (The Tennessean)

"The strength of The Magic Furnace is in the story. It never gets bogged down in scientific jargon" (Sky & Telescope)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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.
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By A Customer on 26 April 2002
Format: 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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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Format: Hardcover
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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