Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2014
By Kadri

Stardust, Supernovae and the Molecules of Life by Richard N. Boyd

Rating: 7/10

What connection do we as humans and living beings have to supernovae, besides being excited about noticing a bright "new star" in the night sky?

The molecules that our cells are made of consist of atoms, some of which began their existence in the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, such as Carbon and Oxygen, others, like elements up to iron were forged inside the stars, but there are some that only exist on Earth and the cosmos because of supernovae – huge explosions that some stars end their lives with, some of the rarest and radioactive elements are formed there. How exactly do the elements form, can be read in this book.

Boyd’s book shows the reader first the beginning of atoms and molecules, and how they formed, and then continues with the intriguing question of chirality in molecules, and in amino acids in particular.

Chirality means handedness – you have a left hand and a right one, they’re similar, but mirror-images of each other and there’s no way to make them look exactly the same. There are molecules that also have the same characteristic, and are used for making up the organic compounds.

Life on Earth seems to be using a lot of left-handed molecules, and not right-handed ones, despite the fact that in laboratory conditions both left- and right-handed molecules are formed at the same rate.

In case of some medicines we know that only one kind of chiral molecule helps us fight a disease, while the other might do nothing, or cause unwanted side-effects.

Why is it then that life tends to prefer one kind?

In this book we go on an expedition in search for locations and events that might produce only one kind of chiral molecule, and we find out whether there might be a connection with these locations and life on Earth.

There are several hypothetical models for how chiral molecules can form – circularly polarized light being one example. It has been thought that circularly polarized light from the Sun has an effect on some of the chiral molecules and not others, hence making one sort of chiral molecule more abundant than the other.

Also chiral molecules might form near other stars in interstellar space, and it might be a more efficient way of producing them as the photons are more energetic if they don’t have to pass through an atmosphere. But there are also several other models that one can read about as well.

In addition to the chirality of molecules and how chemical elements form one can also read about supernovae, which have an important part in this book. What happens to amino acids when they happen to be near a supernova explosion?
In this book you’ll be reading about biology, chemistry and astrophysics, all of which are presented in an easily understandable way with several schematics and images to explain some of the concepts.

Boyd’s Stardust, Supernovae and the Molecules of Life presents an interesting topic, that is certainly exciting and informative for the general reader, showing connections between various fields of research, and different astronomical objects and life on Earth.

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