Rollercoaster ride to infinity

Atom
September 21, 2001

"Cosmohistory", in which the normal vision of history is exaggerated, so that kings, kingdoms, wars, warriors and other motes are telescoped into insignificance and the historian takes the truly grand view, out-Macaulaying Macaulay, is becoming a commonplace of popular science writing.

The cosmo-historian stands back from the rise and fall of kingdoms and republics, dinosaurs and continental drift, and encompasses the history of the whole cosmos from the year dot (a dot that, as it happened, filled all space) to the distant, presumably bleak, inhuman future when all our aspirations and accompanying pollutions are either packed back into a dot (unlikely) or stretched out once and for all into featureless dead-flat space-time. Such is the current power and reach of science that a cosmo-historian can span these hundreds of billions of years with reasonable confidence, and view the perspiration and achievement of humanity on Earth as an inconsequential fleeting instant early in the overall tapestry of events.

Lawrence Krauss has set out to write such a cosmo-history of all there is. For his vehicle from the Beginning to the End, he has chosen to ride on a single oxygen atom. The idea is rather neat, for oxygen atoms can go where other atoms might not reach. We mount the atom before it has been formed, in the cataclysmic event at the inception of our space and time. The elephantine convulsions that marked the coming of space-time gave birth, despite all the effort, to the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen and helium. The formation of oxygen was millions of years in the future, and involved traumatic experiences for the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms as they collected into stars, the stars aged, swelled, collapsed and exploded; then new stars were formed from the detritus of the old. Only after this stellar roasting, galactic dispersal, more roasting and more dispersal, do we finally form the oxygen atom that we are to trace through and beyond history.

Krauss follows the events that culminate in the formation of his oxygen atom in considerable but not overwhelming detail. After 10 billion years and about 123 pages, the atom, fully formed, finally arrives on what is to be Earth in the form of a molecule of water. Its progress now, though far less tumultuous than during its stellar and intergalactic phases, is no holiday, for events on Earth are violent too. First, there are its geological episodes in which the oxygen atom is a part of the rocks that form the Earth, is drawn deep down below the surface and then returned to freedom through vents and volcanoes. At some stage, though, the atom may become a part of a molecule that is contributing to yet another phase of Earth's development, the biological era that we still, increasingly precariously, enjoy. Once again, Krauss does a very creditable job in tracing the detailed history of his atom through the complex events that science has shown have marked the emergence of, first, the dead, and then the living Earth.

A cosmo-historian is licensed to speculate about the future. We are invited to follow our atom into the distant future. We can be confident that our sun will come to an end, for in about 4 billion years the orbit of the Earth will have migrated out to where Mars now lies and the sun will have several times its current brightness. Now the atmosphere will be blasted off, and there is no hope that life will be able to survive. Our atom itself may also have a cosmically lonely future, for as the universe expands (perhaps at an ever-increasing rate), the chance that it will ever again contribute to a civilisation will decline. If matter does decay into radiation, then even the atom itself will vanish, leaving no trace of its history and the consciousness to which it once so unconsciously contributed.

A reader of this book will travel with the atom, and learn a great deal of modern particle physics, astrophysics and molecular biology, for cosmology and this kind of cosmo-history draw on all fields of science.

However, some aspects of conventional historiography - such as accuracy - are not fully respected. We encounter a Lord Thomson (rather than Kelvin) and an engaging vignette of a Galileo, perhaps a cousin of the one from Pisa, busily pursuing his career in Venice. I remain puzzled why Cern should be regarded as a politically incorrect acronym.

There is also an unfortunate parochialism (and often a sentimentality) in the analogies and metaphors, which are all very apple-pie American: I think a book dealing with a grand theme should be more international, less national, in tone. But, for all these defects of style, a reader who can stay the pace will learn a lot of science.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth... and Beyond

Author - Lawrence M. Krauss
ISBN - 0 316 64877 9
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £18.99
Pages - 305

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