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From Stars to Stalagmites – How everything connects
World Scientific 2012 ISBN 13 978 981 4324 97 7
Paul S. Braterman*

I am a pretty avid reader of popular science books, but generally speaking I’ve mostly read books with a general emphasis on biology, particularly evolutionary biology. From Stars to Stalagmites is therefore a bit different from my usual reading fare, taking a chemist’s view on the world. In essence, the book spends 16 chapters explaining how we know stuff. Stuff ranging from the age of the Earth to how CFCs were incriminated as the cause of the ozone holes. Many of these accounts are told with specific reference to the people who shaped the theories and the science. I don’t mean just the scientists – policy-makers and polticians also feature highly – a good example being the chapters on figuring out the cause of the ozone hole and on global warming.

I could summarise this book as “a collection of stories about stuff”, but that would ignore the central theme that comes across as one read through the book: how we know how natural processes work, and how we can use this understanding to probe the deep history of our planet, figure out how to rescue our planet from anthropogenic destruction and so forth.

On reflection some, if not all, of the chapters come across as excellent material for presentations. Whether such has been the origins of the work or not, I do believe that the book itself would have benefited from a bit more in the way of illustration…

For me, stand out chapters include the opening chapter on the age of the Earth (Chapter 1), that on Fritz Haber, the First World War and explosives (Chapter 6), and the 14th Chapter on why water is weird. But I guess those preferences reflect my interests; the book is consistently interesting and clearly written.

In dealing with the evolution of ideas about the Earth’s antiquity, Braterman effectively sets the stage for all the controversies manufactured by the biblical literalists who insist in (mis)interpreting the bible to deduce that the Earth is a mere 6000 years (give or take a little). The chapter takes the reader on a journey in the changing scientific understanding of earth science, which neatly encapsulates the nature of scientific discovery. I think this example illustrates the value of this book. It’s not necessarily in its factual content, but in the way rational and thoughtful investigation of the world and its material phenomena can lead to clearer understanding of the world around us. And more than this, several chapters describe how current understanding can and does change as science advances, both in terms of techniques and in the application of knowledge from disparate areas of investigation.

To conclude, From Stars to Stalagmites is a valued addition to my bookshelf and a fine example of popular science writing.

*Disclosure: Paul Braterman is a BCSE committee member, as am I.