Geoff Brown reviews this scientific 'story'

Origins of life in the universe
Robert Jastrow and Michael Rampino
Cambridge: CUP 2008 | Pp394 | £24.99 | ISBN 978 0 52 153283 9
Reviewed by Geoff Brown

Cover of Origins of life in the universe

This book tells a scientific 'story' on the grandest scale, from the beginnings of the universe to the evolution of intelligence on Earth, all in just under 400 pages. Each topic is explained concisely and clearly in language comprehensible to the non-specialist reader, and the text is well illustrated with many original photos and excellent figures. The authors, who are respectively leaders in the fields of astronomy/planetary sciences and Earth sciences, have been careful to incorporate the latest findings from their specialities and the content is generally up to date, and particularly good in these fields. 

The first section of the book deals with astronomy and astrophysics. The reader is given a framework by which to think about our place in the universe, starting from the forces of Nature, operating at the microscopic level, and leading to clusters of galaxies. Evidence for our contemporary picture of the universe is then presented, together with some of the uncertainties in our knowledge. Finally, the birth and death of stars are discussed with particular emphasis on the formation of chemical elements beyond helium, which have been essential for the emergence of life on our planet. 

The second section deals with the development of the solar system. The moons Europa and Titan are briefly covered as possible sites for life beyond Earth but it is Mars that receives particular attention. The third section of the book focuses on the geology and climatology of our planet, introducing topics from Earth science such as mineralogy, plate tectonic theory and climate change throughout the Earth's history. 

The final section describes the basic chemical components of life and the evolution of life. The book ends with a discussion of the evolution of intelligence, and whether we are likely to encounter intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

This excellent text would work well as a textbook for a first-year undergraduate course in popular science (the summaries and questions at the end of each chapter suggest that this may have been the intention). I recommend this book to school teachers and post-16 chemistry students who want to acquire a broad background on scientific theories which relate to the origins of life on Earth. 

That said, however, the book has only limited information (three pages) on the chemistry that may have occurred at the origin of life. For readers of Education in Chemistry, for whom this aspect would be the most interesting part of the 'story', I would recommend that they read this book in conjunction with more specialists texts, eg Origins of life on the Earth and in the cosmos by Geoffrey Zubay (Academic Press, 2000).