Writing about the stars is nothing new. The Sumerians, who first put stylus to stone more than 5,000 years ago, used the star symbol to denote a king or a god on cuneiform tablets. Dante found stars so divinely inspiring that he ended all three parts of his incomparable "Commedia" with stelle, the Italian word for stars. And countless other poets, novelists, playwrights and diarists have drawn inspiration from them, ideated them or simply wished upon them.
Yet few of these scribblers could have conceived of the stars that Emma Chapman has spent her career chasing. An astrophysicist based at Imperial College in London, Chapman is after the first stars to form in the aftermath of the Big Bang, an almost incomprehensible 13 billion years ago.
These first stars — "hot, massive, and fleeting," born in a universe devoid of any elements heavier than helium — have never been seen, and Chapman's new book, "First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time," does a great job explaining why they've proved so elusive.
But don't worry if you can't recall your high school astrophysics; Chapman is a sure-footed and entertaining guide. She begins with basics like the nature of light and its finite speed, steps through why these stars must exist and how we might find them, and finally lays out various false starts and promising leads.
As you might expect, there are plenty of mind-blown moments throughout, such as the fact that aliens observing us from our nearest galaxy, the Andromeda system, would be watching a version of Earth from 2.5 million years ago. Her everyday examples of complex concepts are conversational, witty and elucidating, touching everything from how atoms behaved immediately after the Big Bang — like a roomful of hyper toddlers playing with Legos — to the difference between optical astronomy (Marty McFly's DeLorean) and radio astronomy (Doctor Who's TARDIS). Even her footnotes house fun facts, like why Rudolph could help Santa find drugs and counterfeit money.
But this is not Astronomy 101, and while Chapman manages to effectively convey the gist of most of this most complicated of space sciences, the astrophysics-ness of it all puts up a strong fight. Concise summaries at the end of each chapter are welcome, and the late discussion about the death of stars, the sources of photons and the potentially game-changing James Webb Space Telescope, expected to be launched in 2021 after numerous delays, give valuable context to even the thorniest theoretical hurdles introduced earlier in the book.
Chapman's most valuable asset here, aside from her obvious expertise, is her enthusiasm. She explicitly disagrees with those who argue that "science should be dehumanized, clinical and purely logical," and at times says things that sound positively unscientific, such as the ho-hum "black holes are astounding."
But let's be honest, black holes are astounding. All of this is astounding, so much so that it almost defies explication, which is why it is such a treat to have someone of Chapman's stature willing to carry us along as she reaches for these ancient stars.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
By: Emma Chapman.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma, 304 pages, $28.