April 16, 2014

Review: The Stardust Revolution by Jacob Berkowitz.

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Pity the astronomers of yore. Unlike other scientists, they couldn’t take pieces of their objects of study and place them under scrutiny in a lab. Were the heavens truly unchanging and immutable, made of truly different “stuff” than mundane Earthly goods?

Enter the exciting new age of spectroscopy and Jacob Berkowitz’s new book, The Stardust Revolution: the New Story of Our Origin in the Stars. Just recently released by Prometheus Books, The Stardust Revolution traces the history of the chemistry of astronomy and our modern day understanding of the composition of the universe. Far from being a separate realm, scientists have discovered the elements and chemical compounds found here on Earth are also present in the distant universe. In some cases, such as the discovery of helium in the spectrum of the Sun or certain isotopes of technetium, elements were actually discovered in space first! This also proved the predictive power of Mendeleev’s new-fangled invention in the mid-19th century, the periodic table of the elements.

The Stardust Revolution also stands as a testament to our place in the universe, literally “matter that can contemplate itself.” Sagan was fond of saying that “we’re all stardust,” and it was a major mystery where the heavier elements were synthesized. Hans Bethe demonstrated the process of the proton-proton chain of nuclear fusion that makes stars shine, and with it, the fusion of hydrogen into helium. This process runs out at the element iron, and more energy must be put in than is produced to venture farther up the periodic table. Some elements like isotopes of the aforementioned technetium simply have too short a half life to be found on a 4.5 billion year old Earth. Interestingly, the author also looks at the curious ratios of the isotopes of magnesium-26 (a daughter isotope of aluminum-26) found in many meteorites, a testament to a nearby supernova early in our solar system’s history. Did such an event trigger the collapse and formation of the inner rocky planets? Could we someday pinpoint our old birth cluster and brethren somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy spectroscopically?

New techniques have also led to striking new discoveries in the field of astronomy. Two of the biggest were the advent of radio and infrared astronomy in the 20th century.  Far from being bone dry, the molecular clouds between the stars were found to be teeming with that all important universal solvent on which life as we know it depends; water. Soon, a whole host of compounds were being found in the astronomical wild, including the key ingredients for life.  We may be linked to the cosmos in ways more intimate than we suspected, even in Carl’s day. I thought it was interesting that the molecule C8H10N4O2 has also been discovered in space, a favorite of late-night astronomers and astro-bloggers known as caffeine. Perhaps Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway was correct in stating “There’s coffee in that nebula…”

The author closes with one of the greatest prospects for spectroscopy, the detection of life. The discovery of the spectral signature of free oxygen or chlorophyll in the spectrum of an exoplanet would be a sure sign that something interesting is going on, as in our solar system, these are only sustained by life. Missions such as ESA’s Gaia spacecraft or NASA’s currently shelved Terrestrial Planet Finder have the potential to make just such a groundbreaking discovery in the next decade…

Just think, a chance to point to a place in the sky and state, “the chemistry of life has arisen separately from us, right there.” Only a little over two decades ago, no exoplanets were known; thanks to the revolution driven by the study of stardust, 839 and counting are known of today, enough that we can classify and characterize other solar systems. Will our children live in an era that reaps the consequence of the next revolution, a time when we can classify other galactic biospheres as well? Stay tuned, as the sequel to Stardust Revolution is far from over!

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