COSMIC DAWN: The Origins of Matter and Life by Erie Chaisson

COSMIC DAWN: The Origins of Matter and Life

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Treating each chapter as an ""epoch,"" Harvard astrophysicist Chaisson charts the course of cosmic evolution from particles, galaxies, stars, and planets, on to life, culture, and a contemplation of the future. The text--with its minimal technical references, frequent rhetorical questions, and orderly thematic development--suggests the very model of an undergraduate course for non-science majors; and indeed we learn that innumerable Radcliffe and Harvard students have taken Chaisson's course. The price of all that polish, however, is a slight dullness. Gone are most of the colorful names and personalities, the anecdotes and fortuitous events that make you sit up and take notice. Certainly what is presented has style and majesty: the ""dawn"" of the universe with its morning of intense radiant energy, followed by the evolution of matter, the perturbations that led matter to clump into galaxies. Chaisson's treatment of stellar evolution is equally well-wrought. As the focus comes down to the solar system, he is more honest than other popularizers in describing unresolved dilemmas such as the sun's minimal angular momentum or why Earth is not bombarded by more neutrinos than have been observed so far. When treating life origins, fossil findings, and evolutionary theory Chaisson is up to date but nowhere near as exciting as Donald Johanson in Lucy. When lie turns to culture and technological society, the text takes on a distinctly gloomy pall that suggests both that man's forbears were a parochial lot and that we had better watch out lest we foreclose our future. Here Chaisson specifies overpopulation and nuclear holocaust, but also genetic degeneration and computer takeover! He dismisses manmade space colonies as a way out, but does see a potential for spreading out to the moon or planets. (It would be dandy, he thinks, to listen for galactic relatives.) Competent, then; and perhaps Chaisson's odd approach--part Cassandra, part optimist--will have a particular appeal to the one-book-world-survey student reader.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1981
ISBN: 0595007902
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown