The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms Paperback – 3 Aug 2000
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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
"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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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
Pamela Young Erith Kent
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This has to be the best non fiction book I have ever read. It is informative, readable and entertaining. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Amazon Customer
An utterly engrossing book. Written in such a gentle style that you find each page riveting even though there are lots of sometimes deep scientific facts being thrown at you. Read morePublished 22 months ago by Mr. David Edwards
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 morePublished on 30 Jan. 2014 by ChrisG
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 morePublished on 17 Nov. 2013 by Riffs
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 morePublished on 18 Sept. 2013 by Daniel Kolasinski
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 on 24 Jan. 2013 by Les Serff
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 morePublished on 22 Feb. 2012 by Amazon Customer
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