(2012) Jacob Berkowitz, Prometheus, hrdbk, £23.95 / US$27 / Can$28.50, 376pp, ISBN 978-1-61614-1
October 4th 1957 saw the launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit, but that year was more important in astrophysics terms as Fred Hoyle and colleagues worked out how stars (including the Sun) generate elements heavier than helium and specifically carbon which is the element underpinning life as we know it: we are after all carbon-based life forms. This is the starting point of Jacob Berokwitz's fascinating history of the science of chemical synthesis in the Universe that ultimate leads to the formation of rocky planets like Earth as well as life itself. The bottom line is that stars are essential for life, not just because of their energy output but, because they actually create the chemical elements needed for life's physical substance as well as the worlds on which it exists.
Jacob's narration flows well and is easy to read being pitched as it is towards the less-complex end of the style you might find in New Scientist: he has written popular science books before. As such the book is very accessible to non-astronomers and non-physicist scientists as well as ideally suited to those being taught school science aged 17-18. There are two sections of 8 pages each of gloss art that contain the book's full-colour diagrams and photos a useful subject index as well as – it has to be said – a less useful appendix of notes and references (I found it a bit of struggle to identify some of the text's sources). But do not let this put you off for if you do need detailed citation then your science is probably at university level and above and so in all likelihood you need a more advanced text. Conversely this does the job perfectly for the readership I identify above.
In terms of science fiction aficionados, this book would appeal to readers of hard SF who are not themselves scientists but into popular science and that which underpins the genre. Indeed SF creeps into the text in several places: SF often makes for a good sugar coat to digest what might otherwise by somewhat difficult science. Though Jacob Berkowitz does make all the concepts look easy and that, after all, is the sign of a good popular science writer.
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