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From Dust to Life

The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System by John Chambers and Jacqueline Mitton

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In about 300 pages, this book sums up the history of all that matters — or at least everything made of matter — from the Big Bang to life on Earth.

This wild ride across the cosmos and through time covers a lot of territory, but isn’t merely a laundry list of observations. Instead, readers will find one lucid explanation piggybacked onto another. Chapters show how energetic particles first organized into atoms, then molecular clouds (the star factories), then protoplanetary disks and eventually the diverse residents of our planetary neighborhood including asteroids, Pluto and its plutino neighbors.

The authors, a planetary scientist and a space sciences writer, make celestial mechanics comprehensible even to readers with more curiosity than scientific background. Yet there are still insights for those who regularly pore over the astronomy stories in Science News. Best of all, the authors help readers glimpse the why of it all.

If you’ve ever wondered, for instance, why the inner solar system harbors rocky planets with perhaps a moon or two while the outer reaches nurture giants, each towing more than a dozen satellites, you’ll find the provocative answer here (it involves an embryo planet’s gravitational “reach”). Particularly striking is imagery describing the structure of the gas and ice giants (Jupiter through Neptune), such as droplets of helium and neon forming “a continuing drizzle” as they descend through storm eddies toward the Jovian interior.

But breadth comes at a price: This isn’t a page-turner. I would have sacrificed some of the book’s fine explanations for a glimpse of the personalities of those who advanced our understanding of the universe’s origins, sometimes against prevailing views of the times.

Princeton Univ., $29.95

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