First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma ChapmanFirst Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma Chapman

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma ChapmanIn First Light (2021), Emma Chapman covers the earliest eras of the universe’s existence, particularly focusing on what astronomers, due to their lack of information, call the “Dark Ages,” from about 380,000 years to one billion years after the Big Bang occurred. Even more specifically, her interest lies with the creation of the first stars and the current attempt to find out more about them.

Despite the focus, Chapman manages to bring in a host of other astronomical discoveries/investigations: the Cosmic Microwave background, inflation, dark matter, space telescopes, radio astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, black holes, the Great Oxygenation Event, and others. She also goes on a variety of non-astronomical tangents involving King Tut’s tomb and pigeons (yes, pigeons).

Chapman does an excellent job explaining some complicated science here in lucid, easy to follow prose. Several times I wrote in my notes “excellent explanation” or “best explanation of this I’ve read,” as with her explanation of plasma (“like a gas consisting of tiny magnets, forever attracting and repelling each other”) or the creation of dark matter halos and filaments.

Equally as good as her descriptions of individual concepts is the way she ends each chapter with a concise, simplified summary of the chapter’s points, allowing the reader to solidify that knowledge and thus have it in hand to build on for the next. All of this is done via an engaging, conversational tone peppered with personal asides, pop culture references (“If you don’t know where TARDIS is from, go download Doctor Who and rejoice”), smiley faces in an illustration, and some fun-to-read footnotes.

Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman

My only issues with First Light are that while some of the tangents are interesting and amusing, others merely interrupt with little benefit. And several times Chapman’s metaphors similarly interrupt the flow without really illuminating the subject matter, and at times even perhaps adding some unneeded complication. Examples include a lengthy tangent on King Tut or an analogy between star size and human height distributions. That noted, I can sympathize with Chapman, as the analogy is typically the best way to explain difficult concepts to a lay audience, and it is not easy to come up with one that hasn’t been used before.

If First Light lacks the stylistic excellence of my favorite popular science authors, it remains an excellent example of the genre: clear, informative, concise without sacrificing important information or being overly dense, engaging throughout with a sense of personality and a sense of a personal curiosity and commitment. I hope Chapman writes others.

Published in November 2020. Astronomers have successfully observed a great deal of the Universe’s history, from recording the afterglow of the Big Bang to imaging thousands of galaxies, and even to visualising an actual black hole. There’s a lot for astronomers to be smug about. But when it comes to understanding how the Universe began and grew up we are literally in the dark ages. In effect, we are missing the first one billion years from the timeline of the Universe. This brief but far-reaching period in the Universe’s history, known to astrophysicists as the ‘Epoch of Reionisation’, represents the start of the cosmos as we experience it today. The time when the very first stars burst into life, when darkness gave way to light. After hundreds of millions of years of dark, uneventful expansion, one by the one these stars suddenly came into being. This was the point at which the chaos of the Big Bang first began to yield to the order of galaxies, black holes and stars, kick-starting the pathway to planets, to comets, to moons, and to life itself. Incorporating the very latest research into this branch of astrophysics, this book sheds light on this time of darkness, telling the story of these first stars, hundreds of times the size of the Sun and a million times brighter, lonely giants that lived fast and died young in powerful explosions that seeded the Universe with the heavy elements that we are made of. Emma Chapman tells us how these stars formed, why they were so unusual, and what they can teach us about the Universe today. She also offers a first-hand look at the immense telescopes about to come on line to peer into the past, searching for the echoes and footprints of these stars, to take this period in the Universe’s history from the realm of theoretical physics towards the wonder of observational astronomy.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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