The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Review: From Dust to Life

Bookmark and Share

From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System
by John Chambers and Jacqueline Mitton
Princeton Univ. Press, 2013
hardcover, 320 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-691-14522-8

Last week the American Geophysical Union (AGU) held their Fall Meeting in San Francisco, and the giant conference featured plenty of planetary sciences news. Scientists discussed the discovery of what they believe to be an ancient lakebed by the Curiosity rover that could have once supported life, current lakes of hydrocarbons that dot the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, and geysers of water that appear to be erupting from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, among many other findings presented at the conference.

But to have planetary sciences discoveries like these, you need to have, well, planets, as well as their moons and the smaller bodies that comprise the solar system. Many people may have in their minds a basic concept of solar system formation—planetesimals condensing in the dust disk surrounding the newly-formed Sun and aggregating to form the planets we see—but just how complex and chaotic that process was is only now becoming clear to scientists. The growing knowledge of the current state of the solar system, coupled with increasingly sophisticated computer models, offers a richer understanding of the processes by which our solar system came into being.

One key takeaway from this book is that planet formation was a lot more dynamic than the simplistic models taught even in the relatively recent past.

The current state of those studies is ably explained in From Dust to Life, a book by planetary scientist John Chambers and science writer Jacqueline Mitton. The duo examine the history and current state of knowledge of the formation of our solar system, stretching from astrophysics (the formation of our Sun and the age of the universe) to astrobiology (the formation of life on Earth.) The bulk of the book, though, looks at the formation of the planets, moons, and small bodies in the solar system, and how the solar system achieved its present form.

One key takeaway from this book is that planet formation was a lot more dynamic than the simplistic models taught even in the relatively recent past. In particular, scientists now believe that planets migrated through the solar system during its formation, something illustrated by the discovery of other solar systems that have, for example, Jupiter-sized worlds closely orbiting stars. In our solar system, the “Grand Tack” model has Jupiter migrating closer to the Sun, approaching 1.5 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun before the presence of Saturn caused Jupiter to reverse direction back out to its current location at 5.2 AU. That inward and outward migration could explain the relatively small size of Mars and also clear out most of the material in the main asteroid belt.

Another model, called the “Nice model” for the French city where it was developed, predicts the four outer planets formed relatively closely together. Complex gravitational interactions among them and icy planetesimals, caused them to evolve into the current orbits while, at one point, scattering many of those planetesimals into the inner solar system. That created the “late heavy bombardment” that scarred the surfaces of Mercury, Mars, and the Moon with craters we see today, while likely resetting the formation of life on Earth.

Chambers and Mitton stay focused on the science in From Dust to Life: unlike other books that create narratives around the scientists, they discuss the science and the history of its development, rather than the individuals who made it possible. That’s a worthwhile trade: while there have been, and are today, interesting people studying the formation of the solar system, the science is even more fascinating as we find out just how complex the process is to turn a cloud of gas and dust into a star and planets. As we make new discoveries about our own solar system, as well as more discoveries of other solar systems, that science becoming far more complex, but also no less fascinating.