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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Cosmology & Astronomy

First Light Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

Popular Science
By: Emma Chapman(Author)
304 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations
Exploring the first billion years of our Universe, First Light is a skillfully written popular astronomy book that is as wildly fascinating as its subtitle suggests.
First Light
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  • First Light ISBN: 9781472962942 Paperback Mar 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • First Light ISBN: 9781472962928 Hardback Nov 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

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 online 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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Wildly fascinating
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Aug 2021 Written for Hardback

    In the early days of the universe, there was darkness. Until somebody said, "let there be light"? Not quite. In First Light, astrophysicist Emma Chapman introduces you to ongoing research into the first billion years of our Universe and the birth of the first stars. Popular science at its finest, this book challenged me pleasantly but was above all – with apologies for the terrible pun – enlightening.

    Though I have never given it much thought, the idea of there being a first generation of stars seems logical once you mention it. As Chapman shows, there is a gap in our understanding of what, exactly, happened during this time. Ongoing research shows this to be an unusual period, going by such evocative names as the Dark Ages, the Cosmic Dawn, and the Epoch of Reionisation.

    Before we get to these, Chapman introduces you to the basics in the first four chapters. To grasp the science, you will need to understand the properties of light, stellar classification, the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, and how stars are born. With that sorted, she then walks the reader through those first billion years.

    An awful lot happened in the first three minutes after the Big Bang. Protons and neutrons were able to combine in a process known as nucleosynthesis within ~14 seconds. Within minutes, this process ended and the early Universe was full of hydrogen and helium isotopes. Electrons were still too energetic to bind to them to form atoms proper. It would take another 380,000 years of the Universe expanding and cooling down for so-called recombination to take place and hydrogen atoms to form. Something else happened at this point: the Universe became transparent to radiation. Before this time, "we cannot see anything with light [...] because the environment is too volatile to allow photons to travel on unimpeded paths to our telescope" (p. 84). Although photons were released during these steps, the continued expansion of the universe meant their wavelengths increased (a process known as redshifting) until they left the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. With stars not yet born, the Universe entered its Dark Ages.

    And yet, something was stirring in the darkness. Hydrogen gas coalesced into clouds until some became dense enough to ignite fusion, the first stars flickering into life. This was the Cosmic Dawn, some 180 million years after the Big Bang. Chapman talks at length about these Population III stars as they were unique. Consisting of nothing but hydrogen, they were huge (hundreds of solar masses) and short-lived (millions of years). As fusion consumes a star's hydrogen, they go through several cycles: "with heavier and heavier metals created in onion-like shells" (p. 153). (To astronomers, all elements heavier than helium are simply "metals".) This continues until you hit iron at which point the whole thing goes supernova. The first Population III stars thus seeded the cosmos with heavier elements, paving the way for new iterations of star formation.

    There are two big narrative threads regarding Population III stars. The first was, for me, rather technical and challenging. This has Chapman talk about how to find the first stars using the radiation emitted by hydrogen gas that is cooling down, which has a very particular wavelength. This involves the abstract property of an atom's spin state and the emission of a 21 cm wavelength photon when a hydrogen atom goes through a spin-flip transition to settle in its energetically least excited state, its ground state.

    The second point is that Population III stars are still theoretical entities: we have never observed any. This leads Chapman down two very interesting avenues of research. The first is known as stellar archaeology and tries to find quiet parts of the Universe, so-called stellar tombs, where rare, light-weight Population III stars might have survived until now. The other, complementary approach searches for ancient dwarf galaxies that have escaped the galactic cannibalism through which galaxies grow by gobbling up smaller ones. This would provide information about the environment in which these first stars formed.

    Lastly, there is the Epoch of Reionisation. The Big Bang initially resulted in a Universe with nuclei that did not yet have electrons bound to them; it was ionized. Recombination resulted in a Universe filled with neutral hydrogen. But something happened to reionise the Universe's hydrogen, a state that persists to this day. Research is ongoing to find out what that something was. Early quasars emitting X-rays have been implicated, but photonic emissions by Population II stars are another likely contributor. Similarly, astronomers are trying to constrain the when, with current estimates suggesting that the process took some 500 million years and was complete 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

    For a biologist such as myself – admittedly one fascinated by astronomy – this subject could have ended up being impenetrable in the hands of a lesser science communicator. Chapman has received various commendations and prizes and is a well-known public speaker. She excels at explaining the astrophysics and uses some imaginative metaphors. Why do some particle interactions require a low-energy environment? "Try hugging someone sprinting in the opposite direction and you'll understand why sometimes slower is better when it comes to interactions" (p 130). How do you find a black hole? Through its gravitational effect: "Like spotting someone well known in a shopping arcade, you are unlikely to see that person, but you know that something is happening from the mass of people heading to one point from all directions" (p. 221). Furthermore, she makes good use of subheadings in the text, includes diagrams to visualize abstract concepts, and ends each chapter with a helpful recap.

    Although the focus of her writing remains firmly on the science, she delivers it in a conversational style. There are some nerdy jokes, but never too many. There are lyrical passages, but used in moderation. For example, the Big Bang "[...] is a theory that has been forced on our uncomprehending three-dimensional brains, incapable of visualising infinity but able to understand the overwhelming evidence" (p. 70), while stellar archaeology is described as "[...] a field that has moved from seeking the first stars to conversing with the second stars and hearing tales of their ancestors" (p. 178). Peppered throughout are historical episodes and Chapman highlights some of the underacknowledged female pioneers.

    First Light represents everything I like about the Bloomsbury Sigma imprint: intellectually challenging and well-crafted popular science, written by knowledgeable experts. Next to a wildly fascinating book, this is another shining addition to their roster.
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Emma Chapman is a Royal Society research fellow and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, based at Imperial College London. She is among the world's leading researchers in search of the first stars to exist in our Universe, 13 billion years ago, and she is involved in both the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) in the Netherlands and the forthcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Australia, a telescope that will eventually consist of a million antennas pointing skywards in the desert.

Emma has been the recipient of multiple commendations and prizes, the most recent of which was both the 2018 Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship and STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship, two of the most prestigious science fellowships in the UK. She won the Institute of Physics Jocelyn Bell Burnell Prize in 2014, and was runner-up for the UK L'Oreal Women in Science award in 2017. In 2018 she was also the recipient of the Royal Society Athena Medal.

Emma is a respected public commentator on astrophysical matters, contributing to the Guardian, appearing on BBC radio and regularly speaking at public events. Among others, she has spoken at Cheltenham Science Festival, the European Open Science Forum and at New Scientist Live.

Popular Science
By: Emma Chapman(Author)
304 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations
Exploring the first billion years of our Universe, First Light is a skillfully written popular astronomy book that is as wildly fascinating as its subtitle suggests.
Media reviews

"An illuminating – and entertaining – look at the earliest stars of our cosmos. Chapman is a witty and straightforward guide [...] and her enthusiasm for the chase is infectious. First Light conveys the wonder and mystery of darkness suddenly illuminated by magnificent starlight."
Washington Post

"Throughout First Light, Chapman's authenticity and humour shine through [...] this is a charming book that was as fun to read as it was informative, making it as ideal for the casual reader as for those with an existing understanding of the field."
– Ian Randall, Physics World

"Her everyday examples of complex concepts are conversational, witty and elucidating [...] Chapman manages to effectively convey the gist of most of this most complicated of space sciences [...] Chapman's most valuable asset here, aside from her obvious expertise, is her enthusiasm [...]
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."
The Minneapolis Star Tribune

"First Light is a dispatch from the frontiers of science, from a brain fizzing with ideas and energy."
– Chris Lintott, BBC Sky at Night

"First Light is a fantastic debut on the popular science scene for Emma Chapman that fleshes out the context around these two key functions. My opinion: come for the state-of-the-art on the first stars, stay for the comprehensive primer on modern cosmology, and revel in the footnotes."
– Paul Woods, Nature Astronomy

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