No Cover Image

From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System

JOHN CHAMBERS
JACQUELINE MITTON
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhnx3
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    From Dust to Life
    Book Description:

    The birth and evolution of our solar system is a tantalizing mystery that may one day provide answers to the question of human origins. This book tells the remarkable story of how the celestial objects that make up the solar system arose from common beginnings billions of years ago, and how scientists and philosophers have sought to unravel this mystery down through the centuries, piecing together the clues that enabled them to deduce the solar system's layout, its age, and the most likely way it formed.

    Drawing on the history of astronomy and the latest findings in astrophysics and the planetary sciences, John Chambers and Jacqueline Mitton offer the most up-to-date and authoritative treatment of the subject available. They examine how the evolving universe set the stage for the appearance of our Sun, and how the nebulous cloud of gas and dust that accompanied the young Sun eventually became the planets, comets, moons, and asteroids that exist today. They explore how each of the planets acquired its unique characteristics, why some are rocky and others gaseous, and why one planet in particular--our Earth--provided an almost perfect haven for the emergence of life.

    From Dust to Life is a must-read for anyone who desires to know more about how the solar system came to be. This enticing book takes readers to the very frontiers of modern research, engaging with the latest controversies and debates. It reveals how ongoing discoveries of far-distant extrasolar planets and planetary systems are transforming our understanding of our own solar system's astonishing history and its possible fate.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4835-5
    Subjects: Astronomy, History of Science & Technology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. ONE COSMIC ARCHAEOLOGY
    (pp. 1-18)

    The temple at Karnak on the River Nile is one of the most magnificent monuments to survive from ancient Egypt. Construction of the vast temple complex began 3,000 years ago, and 30 different pharaohs developed and extended the site for a millennium afterward. Everywhere at Karnak, the stone walls and columns of the temple precincts are inscribed with historical texts, prayers, and accounts of religious rituals. Today, guides routinely explain to tourists the meaning of the symbols incised in stone and the significance of this immense monument. Yet for 1,500 years no one in the world could make sense of...

  6. TWO DISCOVERING THE SOLAR SYSTEM
    (pp. 19-42)

    In 1768, James Cook and a party of 80 men set sail from England on a voyage of astronomical discovery that would take them halfway around the world. After 10 months at sea, HMSEndeavourand its crew arrived at their destination, the remote island of Tahiti in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Their main mission was to spend a mere six hours making astronomical observations that could help to establish the true size of the solar system once and for all.

    Cook was charged with observing a rare phenomenon called a transit of Venus—the passage of Venus’s...

  7. THREE AN EVOLVING SOLAR SYSTEM
    (pp. 43-55)

    Sixty-six years after James Cook traveled to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, the island received another scientific visitor on a historic voyage. “Crowds of men, women and children were collected on the memorable Point Venus ready to receive us with laughing, merry faces,” wrote Charles Darwin of his arrival in 1835.

    Four years earlier, when he was only 22, Darwin had been appointed as a naturalist on board the Royal Navy survey ship HMSBeagle. On a momentous five-year voyage around the world, Darwin carefully observed wildlife and collected specimens at several exotic locations, including Tierra del Fuego...

  8. FOUR THE QUESTION OF TIMING
    (pp. 56-74)

    “Earth’s Age: 4.6 billion years” announcedChemical and Engineering Newsin November 1953, describing a dramatic breakthrough in the quest to discover when our planet formed. Two weeks earlier, American geochemist Clair C. Patterson had announced his finding at a meeting of the Geological Society of America. Patterson told the gathered delegates that Earth is precisely 4.55 billion years old, give or take about 70 million years. A reporter forChemical and Engineering Newscaught Patterson’s presentation and wrote it up as a story. In this rather unconventional way, the world learned the true age of Earth for the first...

  9. FIVE METEORITES
    (pp. 75-91)

    Just before midnight on a fall evening in 1992, a brilliant ball of fire appeared in the skies above the United States. Brighter than the full Moon, it was seen by hundreds of people as it traveled northeast across West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Distinctly green in color, and accompanied by sharp crackling sounds, the ball of light was filmed by a dozen onlookers, including several spectators at a Friday-night football game. Some of these films show the fireball separating into multiple parts, with at least 70 pieces visible at one point. The fireball finally vanished over New...

  10. SIX COSMIC CHEMISTRY
    (pp. 92-107)

    Humans owe their existence to the rich variety of chemical elements that exist in the universe. Our solar system contains hydrogen to power the Sun, iron and silicon to build rocky planets, and carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen to form the building blocks of life. Almost 100 elements occur naturally in the solar system in varying amounts. Some, like hydrogen, oxygen, and iron, are abundant everywhere. Others, like gold, silver, and uranium, are much less common. The mixture of elements has remained almost constant since the solar system formed, apart from changes deep in the Sun’s interior. In this chapter, we...

  11. SEVEN A STAR IS BORN
    (pp. 108-122)

    When we look up at the stars on a clear night, we see several hundred of the Sun’s nearest and brightest neighbors forming the familiar patterns of the constellations. If the night is particularly dark, several thousand other stars are visible to the naked eye, as well as a hazy band of light stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon. This band, composed of billions of individual stars, is our Milky Way galaxy. Billions more stars lie concealed behind swathes of dust or are simply too dim and too far away to be seen. Our Sun is just an...

  12. EIGHT NURSERY FOR PLANETS
    (pp. 123-139)

    The solar system has a decidedly two-dimensional aspect to it. The orbits of the eight major planets all lie in almost the same plane, deviating by no more than 7 degrees. Bodies in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt stray a little further afield, but these belts are arranged like flattened donuts, aligned with the same plane as the planets. The Jupiter-family comets largely follow the same pattern. Only the Oort cloud and the long-period comets have a truly spherical arrangement.

    Kant and Laplace noted the planar nature of the solar system more than two centuries ago. Both used...

  13. NINE WORLDS OF ROCK AND METAL
    (pp. 140-167)

    Earth and our nearest planetary neighbor, Venus, are superficially similar in several ways. The two planets are nearly the same size and lie in the same region of the solar system. Both bodies are made of rocky materials enveloped by a relatively thin atmosphere. Yet there are obvious differences too. Earth has a magnetic field, but Venus has none. Venus’s atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide, while Earth’s consists of nitrogen and oxygen. Earth spins rapidly, once every 24 hours, whereas Venus rotates so slowly that it takes longer to spin on its axis than it does to travel around the...

  14. TEN THE MAKING OF THE MOON
    (pp. 168-185)

    The Moon is our nearest neighbor in space, but for a long time it was something of an enigma. With the naked eye, we can clearly make out light and dark regions on the Moon’s surface. A modest pair of binoculars reveals a complex landscape of mountains, plains, and craters. However, before the dawn of the space age, we knew only half a Moon: the familiar face turned permanently toward our planet. Most of the lunar far side remained out of reach, less accessible to Earth-bound observers than the most distant planet in the solar system. Even the details we...

  15. ELEVEN EARTH, CRADLE OF LIFE
    (pp. 186-204)

    Earth must have been a nightmarish place immediately after the giant impact that formed the Moon. Shock waves raced away from the site of the impact, spreading in all directions. These waves traveled through Earth’s interior and converged again on the far side of the planet, blasting away much of the atmosphere into space. The tremendous energy released during the impact melted the upper layers of Earth into a magma ocean, a slushy mixture of molten and solid rock more than 1,000 km (600 miles) deep. If the young Earth had any oceans of water, they would have boiled almost...

  16. TWELVE WORLDS OF GAS AND ICE
    (pp. 205-224)

    Imagine if we could take a voyage deep into the interior of Jupiter, the most massive planet in the solar system. What would we find? As we first approach the planet, we would see its familiar exterior: colorful belts of clouds encircling the planet, some white, others various shades of red, orange, and brown (Figure 12.1). Numerous oval features are dotted at intervals between the cloud belts, including the famous great red spot.

    As we enter Jupiter’s atmosphere, this flat image takes on a three-dimensional structure. Belts of various colors resolve themselves into cloud banks at different altitudes. The spots...

  17. THIRTEEN WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ASTEROID BELT?
    (pp. 225-241)

    Picture the asteroid belt in your mind. What does it look like? A popular image is a dense cloud of churning debris, angular boulders, and mountain-sized chunks of rock flying to and fro as far as the eye can see. Objects continually collide with one another, knocking off shards or shattering into a shower of fragments. It seems almost impossible that a spacecraft could traverse the asteroid belt and survive intact.

    In some ways, this picture is correct, but it differs from reality in one striking respect: the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is almost entirely empty space. Astronomers...

  18. FOURTEEN THE OUTERMOST SOLAR SYSTEM
    (pp. 242-262)

    Until the mid-20th century, little was known about the true nature of asteroids and comets. Asteroids looked like single points of light through a telescope, and astronomers tended to think of them as miniature planets, albeit ones with somewhat more elliptical and inclined orbits. The great majority of known asteroids moved within the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but astronomers were aware that a few came closer to Earth or traveled beyond Jupiter. Comets seemed to constitute a separate family, distinct from asteroids. They grew much brighter as they approached the Sun, becoming enormously extended objects with a...

  19. FIFTEEN EPILOGUE: PARADIGMS, PROBLEMS, AND PREDICTIONS
    (pp. 263-276)

    In 2010, NASA announced its latest science plan. One of the key goals for NASA’s future planetary science program is to learn how the Sun’s family began and how it has changed over time. This is a direct response to the kind of questions that scientists and the public keep asking: where do we come from, and how did the world come to be the way it is? Scientists and engineers around the globe are pursuing this goal with every tool at their disposal. Astronomers and space agencies in dozens of countries are helping us to see the solar system...

  20. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 277-290)
  21. SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
    (pp. 291-292)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 293-300)