Twenty-fifth Sunday Salon: THE MAGIC FURNACE by Marcus Chown
Contemplating the night sky has always made me feel uneasy. It makes me aware of my insignificance. And I think that if Marcus Chown had started THE MAGIC FURNACE with the subject of the stars and the universe I would not have plunged so happily into the pages of his book. As it is he starts with something much more comfortable and controllable: he asks a question to which I think I already know the answer:
'...what happens if I take this stick, this piece of cloth, this clay tablet, and cut it in half, then in half again?' Can I go on forever?'When I was a child I was given a toy working microscope, which I treasured. I treasured equally the instruction booklet that came with it that explained how I could prepare the objects around me for the lens. It was called 'Worlds within a World' and this idea that there are worlds smaller than my own everyday world of people and houses, and this, in turn, is part of a bigger world, which is part of another, and another, has intrigued me ever since. It is like a mirror reflecting into another mirror, the worlds go on and on in either direction - to the unimaginably small and to the unimaginably large.
The first section of THE MAGIC FURNACE describes the history of the discovery of this smaller world. It is satisfying sweeping narrative, taking in events such as the first breath-taking time atoms were 'seen' using Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy (STM).
'It was as if lightning flickered from the finger of a god to the ground. If he lifted his finger too high, the lightning died away until he had no sense of the surface; if he moved too close, the lightning grew to a painful intensity. By keeping the lightning crackling at a tolerable level, he was able to follow the ups and downs of the terrain with his finger.'This up and down movement is converted into a visual image by computer to give 'the most remarkable images in the history of science'.
After that the atom is split to reveal protons and neutrons and, most importantly, 'the extraordinary energy inside'.
This leads on to the second section, which deals with what makes the sun the sun and the stars shine. Here all sorts of subjects I thought I knew are connected. It is rather like deciding to walk between stations on the underground instead of riding in the dark in between: this is how Trafalgar square leads to the theatres of Soho, and this is how forcing the sun's light through a prism led to the science of spectroscopy. Everything is described simply and clearly. Because he obviously has an excellent understanding of the topic Chown can eliminate the complicated scientific vocabulary and replace it with the vernacular - suns 'vomit' out gases, for instance. This means that even hugely complicated phenomena such a 'tunnelling' by an alpha particle from a nucleus becomes easily understandable.
The section that ends the book gathers together all the evidence of how the elements are made: it has a complicated history involving the sun, the stars, red giants, supernovae, and the big bang. It makes thrilling reading. Each process is responsible for part of the periodic table and at the end of it I marvelled that we are here at all. I suppose it is possible to either take the view that everything was designed so that life was able to evolve or it is just because of a series of improbable coincidences that things turned out the way they did - and that there is now a carbon-based life-form staring out from a world composed mainly of iron orbiting around a hydrogen sun. There is an intriguing hint that we could be at the end of things, and the reason that we appear to be alone in the universe is that other intelligent life has come and gone.
It makes a fascinating read for anyone who has ever looked out into a clear starry night, however uneasily, and wondered why and how we are here.