June 26, 2017

Review: Heaven’s Touch by James B. Kaler

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Out now from Princeton University Press!

Everyone seems to be in a “Death from Above” mood this year. At the happier end of the cosmic spectrum, I give you Heavens Touch, by professor James B. Kaler and out recently courtesy of Princeton Press. Ever wonder were the elemental boron in your laundry cleaner came from? This book will reveal this and other remarkable cosmic secrets. But it’s also a much broader tale, of how the cosmos around us is intertwined with our existence, from the creation of the tides to the precipitation of the elements to the role of cosmic radiation. The author adeptly guides us through the cosmos that is in fact our backyard. Some of it may be old hat to veteran science readers, such as our friend, the precession of the equinoxes, and  some new, such as the life and death of such exotic objects as magnetars. I thought the author’s use of his own personal images were possible was a good touch, as this lends a certain level of originality to any book. The author is also an expert at making intriguing connections, such as the effect a brilliant nearby supernova might have on penguins or soybean growth. The author also illustrates how a really bright nearby supernova may cause widespread blindness! The sole exception I have to take is the quote “Don’t even attempt to observe the Sun with a homemade filter…” We and many other experienced solar observers have done so for years!

Our climate is intimately related to our place in space and time. (Credit: Art Explosion).

Our climate is initmately related to our place in space and time. (Credit: Art Explosion).

The chapter on “Atomic Rain” was particularly captivating. Its generally under appreciated the role that the solar heliopause plays in shielding us from the radiation of the interstellar medium; Until the Voyager spacecrafts both effectively pierce the veil, levels outside will be largely unknown. A good point the author brings up is that a badly placed (from our perspective) supernova could compress this envelope to the point that we on Earth could find ourselves on the outside exposed to this unknown medium! Needless to say, such an experiment might not be to our liking!

But alas… back to the boron. Like many, I’d never given much thought to the light elements of lithium, boron, and beryllium placed innocuously between helium and carbon. Helium is generated from the proton-proton fusion chain in the core of our Sun, and the small amounts found on Earth in natural gas deposits can be accounted for by alpha decay of heavier elements, which yields one helium nucleus in the process. But the Sun fuses helium nuclei into carbon, skipping elements 3-5… so what’s going on here? It’s true that some, (a very tiny amount) of lithium was created during the initial Big Bang. The remainder we see is actually formed by the interaction of dust with interstellar comic rays! The same rays are even theorized to spark lightning and the ghostly sprites seen on the tops of storms…if you rely on a daily dose of lithium meds to face reality, thank your lucky cosmic rays for our Earthly stash!

In the “Frozen Earth” the author explains the complex geometry of the Earths’ motion, and how little effects are indeed cumulative over long periods of time. Not only does this effect us over the annual span of the terrestrial seasons, but over longer periods, triggering what’s become known as the ice ages via the Milankovitch effect, or the superposition of our orbital eccentricity over obliquity of our axial tilt over a 100,000 year span (OK, such things are fascinating to us!) but add current global warming and climate change into the mix, and you can see that we might be tinkering with something we don’t yet fully understand. For the record, the solar heating variation due to distance from perihelion (which currently happens in northern hemisphere winter) to aphelion is 7 percent, as to the opposed maximum possible ratio of 24 percent.

In the end, the author reveals the ultimate proof of celestial connections; that we’re here at all to appreciate it. Not that this is an anthropocentric piece, mind you; the author points out that among all the worlds we see, ours is the right mix of rocky metallic elements, at the right galactic time and distance, for life as we know it to flourish. It’s been proposed that along with an optimal solar distance, there may be a galactic habitable zone as well that we might enjoy. Whatever the reason or how improbable we might be, read Heavens Touch to gain an perspective on what we see in the night sky. Will the new agey title and cover bring in any converts? Perhaps. But we here at Astroguyz always like to think that part of the amazement of spying that +20 magnitude quasar is an appreciation of what we’re looking at. Read Heaven’s Touch to add to that Wow factor!

The cosmic dance continues...(Photo by Author).

The cosmic dance continues...(Photo by Author).

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