From Dust to Life


Authors: John Chambers and Jacqueline Mitton
Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0-69114-522-8
Price: £19.99 (Hb) 320pp

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As its subtitle suggests, this book sets out to describe ‘The Origin and Evolution of the Solar System’ as seen through the work of generations of scientists who have contributed to the picture we now have. The story told by planetary scientist John Chambers and science writer Jacqueline Mitton draws upon many different scientific disciplines: geology, biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology and so on, each with many sub-disciplines of their own and yet, despite its dual authorship, the text is superbly structured, seamless and lucid. That so many sciences can be placed before the reader in this approachable manner is a testament to the craftsmanship of the writing.

The authors’ approach is to explore one broad aspect of the Solar System at a time, setting out the scientific principles that will be needed to understand it while running through the history of ideas and observations pertaining to that topic. As they draw towards the present day in each section they go into more detail, describing current research and reflecting upon the likely direction of future investigation. They have a talent for anticipating the reader’s next question and answering at just the right time.

Some issues, such as star formation, are quite rightly discussed in the light of evidence from far beyond the Solar System but the link to their main topic is always clear. By the end the reader has been given a thorough overview of all that we know about the Sun’s retinue of planets, asteroids, satellites, comets and tiny but informative fragments.

Much of the enjoyment in reading this book comes from the writers’ frank description of areas of ambiguity, controversy and doubt. The excitement of cutting edge research is preserved. What they present is our best understanding to date with the evidence that underpins it. The final chapter looks to the future and makes us hope that a revised and updated edition of this first rate book will appear at some time in the future.

Reviewed by Olly Penrice