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Good Reviews: 22
Bad Reviews: 1
Read an Excerpt from THE ALCHEMY OF THE HEAVENS!
Description--THE ALCHEMY OF THE HEAVENS
The Milky Way Galaxy--home of the Earth, Sun, and countless other stars--has long been an object of human fascination. To Australia's aborigines the Milky Way was the smoke from a heavenly campfire, while the Chinese considered it to be a river separating two young lovers. More recently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, astronomers brought their telescopes to bear on the Milky Way, hoping to discern its shape and map the stars that fill its boundaries.
Yet as astronomer Ken Croswell points out in The Alchemy of the Heavens, it's been within the last fifty years that scientists have made the most stunning discoveries about the Galaxy we call home. With a remarkable ability to make difficult concepts clear, Dr. Croswell skillfully leads the reader through a detailed survey of current thinking on the Milky Way. He reveals, for example, that the Milky Way probably formed as many earlier galaxies smashed together; that many of the elements on the Earth, including the iron and oxygen that course through our bodies, were cast into space by exploding supernovae; that in all likelihood there is a massive black hole at the center of the Galaxy, with nearly 3 million times more mass than the Sun; and that the Milky Way's oldest stars preserve the elements created in the big bang, thereby serving as fossils of the universe's earliest days.
Along the way, Dr. Croswell also introduces us to the brilliant astronomers who made some of these discoveries, and recounts the fierce debates that have driven forward our understanding of the Galaxy. Finally, and perhaps most important, we see how knowledge about the Galaxy in particular can give us tremendous insight into the origins of the universe as a whole.
"Ken Croswell has done the impossible: provided a synthesis of our knowledge of the Galaxy that is not only accessible to anyone who wants to know where we came from but will also be invaluable to the scientists working in the field. This is no run-of-the-mill popular science book."
--Marcus Chown, former science editor, New Scientist, and author of Afterglow of Creation and The Magic Furnace
"An eloquently written account of the great story of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. Clear, concise, and up-to-date, this work stands head and shoulders above other popular-level books about the Galaxy."
--Jeff Kanipe, author of A Skywatcher's Year
"Milky Way research has come a long way in the last few decades, and Croswell excels in conveying the excitement of these discoveries."
--Laurence A. Marschall, author of The Supernova Story
Good Reviews--THE ALCHEMY OF THE HEAVENS
Croswell has a wonderful knack for the apt analogy: "Density promotes nuclear reactions, because the greater the density, the more frequently nuclei collide---just as busy streets have more traffic accidents than quiet ones." And: "When a large mass, such as a satellite galaxy, moves through a sea of smaller objects, it is slowed down by their gravity, just as celebrities are slowed down when they walk through a throng of fans."
Describing how our Galaxy may have been formed by the amalgamation of dozens of small galaxies smashing together, Croswell notes: "If this theory was right, the Galaxy's origin had not the grandeur of a classical symphony but the reckless fury of a rock concert." He echoes one of the greatest modern astronomy popularizers, Sir Arthur Eddington, who, musing in 1927 on the interior of a star, wrote, "I am afraid the knockabout comedy of modern atomic physics is not very tender towards our esthetic ideals. The stately drama of stellar evolution turns out to be more like the hair-breadth escapades on the films. The music of the spheres has almost a suggestion of--jazz."
Croswell, a freelance science writer, was trained as an astronomer. Like the best of today's astronomy popularizers--Timothy Ferris, Michael Lemonick, Dennis Overbye--he includes lively, sometimes controversial first-person narratives from scientists who have forged our modern views of the Milky Way. He relates the pique of the British astronomer Fred Hoyle when he did not share the Nobel prize with William Fowler for their work on nucleosynthesis. He also records that, contrary to most popular accounts, Hoyle--who was a proponent of an opposing theory--coined the expression "big bang" not as a pejorative but simply as a convenient handle.
What is really distinctive about The Alchemy of the Heavens is its level of detail. Its rich explanation of the Galaxy's various stellar populations and the several different ways in which the elements could have come into being surpasses even those in elementary textbooks.
I relate this unseemly episode merely to demonstrate that I was not particularly well-disposed towards the book at the outset. It says much for Croswell's skill, therefore, that within twenty pages, I was completely won over. Notwithstanding its enigmatic title, the book is an excellent account of our present understanding of our own Galaxy, and the intellectual processes that have led us there. It tells the story of the endeavours of scientists working in studies of the Milky Way since the earliest times. As such, it is a history book, though it is unlikely to grace the shelves of the average historian's library. Croswell highlights the personalities involved in Milky-Way research; he relishes the frequent episodes of controversy, and presents accurate descriptions of the issues at stake. He draws heavily on interviews he has conducted with many of the scientists involved. Here and there are some fascinating insights.
Croswell's style is engaging (as it should be for an astronomy-PhD-turned-journalist), and the book is nicely laid out....It filled several gaps in my knowledge, and refreshed an interest in Galactic structure that flagged a decade or so ago. The author has done an excellent job. So, too, has his sub-editor--I found only one typographical error in the whole book. What a pity the same sub-editor didn't put his red pen through all that maudlin stuff in the acknowledgements.
For example: Every bright kid knows that the heavier elements come from exploding stars. But did you know that "most of the iron now flowing through your veins came from white dwarfs (dead Sunlike stars) that exploded long ago, perhaps on the other side of the Galaxy"? I didn't.
The Milky Way, of course, is our home Galaxy. It is that band of fuzzy light that stretches across the sky on a clear, dark night....
None of this is static. About 10 new stars form each year within the Milky Way. Throughout the universe, stars are forming and dying, spewing out chemicals in their death throes that are the bases of matter. The elements in your body had their origins in distant stars. (That process is the "alchemy" in the book's title.)
But Croswell's book is not just about data and theories.
It is about astronomers as well, who, not surprisingly, turn out to be very human people, motivated by the familiar mix of high-minded and not-so-high-minded goals that we recognize in most areas of endeavor.
Astronomers seek the truth, but few of them are selfless. There is much ego bound up in their work and in their disagreements.
Croswell, a science writer with a Ph.D. in astronomy, brings his story right up to the latest dispute: How old is the universe?
Croswell looks at the discoveries that revolutionized our knowledge of the Galaxy, and explains how astronomers calculated the Galaxy's size and shape. In the 1940s, they discovered alchemy at work--the nuclear reactions that light stars from deep within their cores. And Croswell describes issues that still perplex astronomers: the invisible matter littering the Milky Way and the giant black hole that may lurk at the Galactic centre.
To anyone swept away with the glamour of cosmology, the Galaxy may seem like small fry. But as Croswell points out, the Milky Way holds clues to some of the biggest questions. Elements in some nearby stars were created just minutes after the big bang, and have much to say about the origins of the universe. The same stars dare to mock the very foundations of cosmological thinking--they profess to being older than some estimates of the age of the universe.
The charm of Croswell's story is that much of it comes straight from the horse's mouth--from interviews with astronomers who have shaped and reshaped our picture of the Galaxy. His colourful account is enlivened by highlights of the controversy that has both fuelled and hindered astronomy's progress, from the debate about the Milky Way's size to the downright "mud wrestling" over the value of the Hubble constant.
The Alchemy of the Heavens is a captivating story, accessible to anyone. Curl up with this one and you'll really get a feeling for the magic of the heavens.
Beginning with Jacobus Kapteyn's Sun-centred Milky Way, Croswell traces modern Galactic studies through the controversy with Harlow Shapley to Walter Baade's discovery of the different stellar populations existing in different regions of the Galaxy.
The book gets its not altogether appropriate title from a compelling chapter outlining the work of Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, Fred Hoyle, and William Fowler, explaining the origin of all but the lightest elements in the nuclear reactions going on in the centre of stars. Fowler got the Nobel prize for his contribution to that work; the others--controversially--did not.
Croswell deals admirably with all the major constituents of the Milky Way--the central bulge, the (thin and thick) disc, the stellar and dark matter halos. There are chapters on the relation of Galactic studies to cosmology, including some of the latest twists and turns in the dispute as to the age of the universe and how that relates to that of the globular clusters. And, presumably at the behest of the publishers, there is the obligatory chapter headed "An Intelligent Galaxy."
This is a lively and well written book, with plenty of first-hand interviews with the major players in the debates. Croswell deserves a round of applause.
He begins with Jacobus Kapteyn's conception of the Galaxy as a small, cozy place with a diameter of 55,000 light-years. But it was not long until Harlow Shapley used Cepheids to envision a much larger galaxy and Edwin Hubble gleaned the true nature of other galaxies, demonstrating that the Milky Way and the universe were not one and the same.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell independently developed the color-magnitude diagram that now bears their names, giving astronomers a tool to aid them in their understanding of the Galaxy's stars. In the 1920s Gustaf Stromberg, Bertil Lindblad, and Jan Oort showed that the Milky Way rotates.
During the following two decades Walter Baade advanced the notion of stellar populations, one of the great breakthroughs in understanding the Galaxy, and William Morgan used photography to show that the Galaxy has spiral arms.
The 1950s saw the publication of the monumental paper by Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle on how all the heavier elements could have arisen in the stars. This is the alchemy referred to in the title of this book.
From this point, Croswell leads the reader into the dispute over the origins of the Galaxy. On one side Allan Sandage and colleagues maintain that its genesis was smooth and orderly. The other side, represented by Leonard Searle and Robert Zinn, proposes that the Milky Way formed in a chaotic manner.
More recently there has been considerable controversy over the exact nature of the Galaxy's disk. New Zealander Gerard Gilmore reported a new stellar population that forms a thick disk above and below the thin disk, providing a new view of the Milky Way's past and fueling the debate over the Galaxy's origin.
After visiting that area of contention, Croswell then considers what is known of the Galactic center (that bulge that has been difficult to penetrate) and the Galaxy's frontiers (the satellite galaxies and the dark matter outside the disk of the Milky Way).
He also reviews how knowledge of the Milky Way has shed light on the age of the universe and has influenced the current battle over the Hubble constant.
Croswell finishes the book by examining the requirements for intelligent life in the universe and the likelihood that we may be the most technologically advanced species in the Milky Way.
The Alchemy of the Heavens is a careful, objective account aimed at general readers, but some sections, especially those about recent research, may prove heavy going for the uninitiated.
Nevertheless, Croswell has produced an excellent synthesis of current knowledge on the Milky Way, made all the more interesting by first-hand interviews instead of the usual synopsis of scientific papers.
--Stephen H. Peters
"Quel que soit le cas--que la Voie Lactee abonde en [sources de] vie intelligente ou que nous en soyons son unique exemplaire--la Galaxie a deja rempli un role majeur: elle a donne naissance a la vie intelligente."
Par ces deux citations, debute et s'acheve ce livre interessant sur "L'Alchimie des cieux" dont le soustitre, quelque peu enigmatique, precise "A la recherche du sens dans la Voie Lactee." Que le lecteur ne s'y trompe pas: il ne s'agit pas d'un livre rempli de considerations philosophiques sur la vie dans l'Univers. Il s'agit plutot d'une veritable histoire de la Galaxie, presentee dans un style clair et simple, avant tout destinee a faire connaitre au grand public l'evolution extraordinaire des conceptions scientifiques sur la Voie Lactee sous tous ses aspects.
L'auteur analyse la plupart des developpements les plus interessants survenus dans ce domaine de l'astrophysique depuis 1950. En ce sens, ce livre retrace l'histoire de l'exploration de notre Galaxie au travers et au hasard des decouvertes realisees, des hypotheses emises et des observations recueillies.
Ce livre servira de guide pour un voyage extraordinairement detaille et captivant dans les differents recoins de la Galaxie, en suivant l'evolution des idees et des moyens d'investigation mis en place plus particulierement au cours de la deuxieme moitie du XX siecle.
The chain of reasoning which builds up our ideas about the distances, temperatures, ages, compositions, and histories of the stars and galaxies is almost as tenuous as the material out of which they are made. Yet every link in the chain is supported by evidence, some of it compelling and some of it less so. Ken Croswell leaves us in no doubt where his sympathies lie, but he nevertheless gives the alternative views (and their supporting evidence) a fair hearing....
Ken Croswell has a knack of presenting information in a way which sets you thinking. A hallmark of the book is the large number of homely illustrations of the kind of thing involved in a scientific concept. Tongue in cheek, of course, since the detail included is not likely to endear it to folk who cannot understand the concepts themselves. Another hallmark is the plethora of quotes from landmark researchers in the field, from which the astronomers concerned emerge as real, warm-blooded people.
The substance of the book centres round the structure and evolution of the Milky Way, starting from protostars and protogalaxies. How the initial condensations come about is not touched on--Jeans does not get a mention--but the controversies raging over whether or not the thick disk exists and how the elements were created are totally riveting and eminently readable. If you have missed the week-by-week to-ing and fro-ing of astronomy in the scientific press over the last ten years then this will bring you up to date by giving you the enduring essentials. I have not enjoyed an astronomy book so much for a long time.
Rival theories on the formation of the Milky Way are discussed in detail and the reader is introduced to the theorists and their work. Along the way some of these profound concepts are explained in layman's terms: dark matter, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, stellar parallax, nucleosynthesis, and the difference between cosmological redshift and the Doppler redshift....The Alchemy of the Heavens is laced with interesting accounts of the lives of the human characters who have woven the tapestry of our understanding of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Starting with a glance back at the ancient speculation about the Milky Way, Croswell leaps by way of Galileo and William Herschel to the early decades of the twentieth century. At this point, his book hits its stride and the author comes into his own, providing an enthralling review of research from the 1910s up to the early 1990s.
Do not be put off by the title of this book. The "alchemy" it talks about is real--the transformation of hydrogen and helium into heavier elements in stars--and the ominous sounding "search for meaning" is nowhere mentioned inside the book. The author claims that the book is intended for the general public and, although this is stretching things a bit, dedicated amateur astronomers, students, and professionals will be rewarded by reading Croswell's tale.
The author interviewed dozens of astronomers, and his frequent quotes make for lively reading. For example, the late Olin Eggen explained why he stuck to observations of stars and eschewed galaxies: "I want to go to my grave at least believing I know something, and not have, the day after the funeral, somebody discover some cosmological principle that changes the whole thing, as is going to happen in the galaxy business...."
This reviewer found the book enchanting and illuminating. It does not dwell explicitly on historiography or the nature of scientific progress, but it provides perspective on many diverse areas of research and it would make an excellent adjunct to any serious study of modern astronomy, whether historical or scientific.
--Charles A. Whitney
The title is also that of one section, which deals with the nucleosynthesis of "metals" in stars. Fred Hoyle's heterodox opinions are like a recurring bass motif throughout the book--for this is astronomy with personalities. Appropriately, it is also a book peppered with forcefully stated opinions.
The theme is our Galaxy and how we came from the legend of "Via Lactea" to our current view of a giant spiral galaxy attended by a retinue of globular clusters, together with dwarf and irregular galaxies. The Galaxy emerges as a fascinating place, filled with stars ranging from old halo and bulge stars, which may predate the recognisable formation of the Milky Way, to fierce young stars thousands of times brighter than our Sun. The Milky Way becomes an example to illuminate the reader's understanding of the entire universe.
Croswell is good at striking phrases. Stressing the dimness of the Draco dwarf galaxy he points out that it shines "only four times more brightly than the star Rigel." Another one that brings the reader up short is "the Large Magellanic Cloud is the fourth brightest" galaxy in the Local Group.
The Alchemy of the Heavens is the book that will stand forever as the best book about the research associated with the Milky Way in the twentieth century. Ken Croswell does an excellent job of relating advanced astronomy knowledge to the amateur. This book should be recommended to everyone interested in the astronomy of the Milky Way.
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