January 20, 2020

Review: From Dust to Life by John Chambers & Jacqueline Mitton

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How did “we” come to be? How did lowly hydrogen atoms congregate together to eventually build laptops and blog about the cosmos? The formation of our solar system is a key to this mystery, a riddle that we just now may finally have the hard data to solve. This week, we take a look at From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of the Solar System by John Chambers and Jacqueline Mitton out from Princeton University Press.

After a brief crash course in astronomy history and “planetary sciences 101,” From Dust to Life takes us on a tour of some of the very latest findings in our solar system. And we do mean recent: data from the Dawn spacecraft’s latest adventures at Vesta, Messenger’s exploits at Mercury, and more are all incorporated here.

Is the evolution of our solar system a freak accident of nature, or a common story that plays out around most stars? From Dust to Life takes a look at the formation of the planets one by one as well as the clues that each may provide… consider them a “case history” in the mystery that is solar system evolution. Our neighboring worlds of Mars and Venus, in particular, are great examples of “cautionary tales” of what the Earth could’ve been.

And as the strange menagerie of exoplanets grows, we gain new insight into just how unique our own solar system may be. With the recent tally of worlds beyond our solar system crossing a thousand just last year, researchers are at last beginning to be able to characterize and classify solar systems and compare them to our own.

From Dust to Life also tackles the problems posed by the early solar nebula and accretion of dust particles into planet-sized masses. Just how did the low speed “clumping” of material eventually overcome the size limitations posed by accretion theory? What gave rise to the Kirkwood gaps and the asteroid belt? Did the passage of a star or massive body early in the solar system’s history give rise to the wacky orbits of outer solar system bodies such as Sedna that we see today?

Another interesting scenario mentioned in the book is what is known as the Grand Tack hypothesis. This proposes that the gas giant planet Jupiter was indeed poised to wreak havoc on the inner solar system… until it was reined in by its current orbital resonance with Saturn. Perhaps this strange quirk saved us from the rise of a system-wrecking “hot Jupiter” such as is seen in so many other exoplanet solar systems.

The book also takes a fascinating look at the formation of our own Moon. The authors note the high amount of angular momentum inherit in the Earth-Moon system as further evidence for a formation via primordial impact.

Read From Dust to Life to gain a fascinating perspective on the current state of the science behind solar system formation. It would make a great companion read to James Kasting’s How to Build a Habitable Planet or an updated answer to the landmark book Rare Earth published in 2000. How typical is the tale of our solar system? We may soon know!

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