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The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms Hardcover – January 15, 2001
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At the intersection of nuclear and astrophysics lie the clues to the origin of atoms, and the observed abundance of the elements was triumphantly explained in a landmark 1957 paper colloquially called "B2 FH," after the initials of its four authors. Nucleosynthesis also was John Gribbin's subject in Stardust: Supernovae and Life--The Cosmic Connection [BKL O 1 00], but Chown differs by dwelling more closely on the physical experiments, particularly the logic behind them, that intimated atomic structure. That atoms were likely to be agglomerations of hydrogen was boldly asserted in 1815 by a chemist named William Prouts, whose hunch took a century for experimental vindication in the apparatuses of Henri Becquerel and the Curies (radioactivity), J. J. Thomson (electron), Ernest Rutherford (proton and nucleus), and James Chadwick (neutron). Meanwhile, Chown relates the elements astronomers had been discovering through the spectra of star- and sunlight, then introduces the theorists, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, who calculated the sorts of nuclear reactions stars and supernovae can sustain. A lucid history. Gilbert Taylor
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"Chown's book offers readers and their inner atoms an enjoyable introduction to that history." -- Craig J. Hogan, Science
"In a series of artfully connected and well-crafted stories, Marcus Chown traces humanity's 2,500-year quest to understand the nature and origin of matter." -Fred Bortz, The Dallas Morning News
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The book is written in terms of what each discover knew, understood, or guessed at the time of each discovery - some details aren't "correct" as we now understand reality. For example, initially it was thought that atoms contained only protons and electrons, until the neutron was discovered. Today, we know that even electrons, protons, and neutrons are made up of smaller particles, but it is sufficient to stop at this level in order to understand the physical facts we meet in everyday life. Again, early on it was thought that the sun and stars were composed mostly of iron - until it was finally recognized that hydrogen is the stars most prevalent element.
The book is easily readable and understood by a high school student with an abundance of curiosity about how things function or work. I was delighted by it, and I am a retired principle design electronics engineer.