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Almost nothing is simple or certain--most especially, the origin of the earth and its companions in the solar system. Hutchison, the British Museum's Curator of Meteorites, makes this point abundantly clear in his scholarly description of the clues obtained from planetary and lunar probes, laboratory simulations, and, in particular, examination of meteorites. Over 100,000 tons of material bombards the earth each year; most is extinguished in the upper atmosphere, but occasionally some survives as big or little hunks for scientific study. After tracing the historical record, Hutchison describes the analyses that have shown meteorites to derive from the asteroid belt and to date back at least 4.5 billion years, to the start of the solar system. Methods of dating and comparison with materials in the earth's crust, mantle, or core are then used to concoct assorted hypotheses on how, when, and why the solar system formed and life on earth began. Neither process, however, is understood with any certainty. It seems clear that for heavy elements to be present a supernova had to be nearby, for only in the spectacular events of star explosion do nuclei fuse to form the heavier elements in the periodic table. ""Early in its history the solar system was seeded. . . it is even possible that the solar system owes its existence to the detonation of a supernova close to the cloud from which it formed."" Evidence for fallout from a supernova has been found in meteorites that fell in North Dakota in 1918--and which may even have predated the solar system. Hutchison goes on to discuss the formation of sun and planets out of a gas cloud (details are by no means agreed upon) and also ventures into the beginnings of life on earth, concluding that extraterrestrial complex compounds could have enriched a primordial earth. But elementary ingredients in the earth's early atmosphere could also have formed the basis for life. Hutchison is, in short, eminently unprejudiced. For readers with a keen interest in the facts: just-the-facts--presented in conscientious detail from a fresh point of view.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press