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by Lawrence M. Krauss
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Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2001)
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* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

This, as the subtitle tells us, is the Odyssey of an oxygen atom from the Big Bang to Life on Earth and Beyond. I have categorised it as SF. You can read this as Science Fact or, if you are one of those people who find many aspects of Quantum Mechanics (upon which most of the physical theory described in the book depends) to be the most fantastic of fictions, as Science Fiction. To digress, serendipitously, as I was reading this book, I acquired an audio cassette with SF author Connie Willis reading one of her short stories, At the Rialto, which with her usual superabundant wit and charm takes Quantum Theory to Hollywood. For me, neither will ever be quite the same again.

Krauss begins his saga in the present, meditating in a Paris garden among massive sculptures by Rodin, and thinks of his oxygen atom in a glass of water, which you may be drinking, or in a wave of the sea, or in a drop of sweat Michael Jordan is wiping from his nose in a big game. He then takes us to the Super Kamiokande detector in Japan. Located in a deep mine, the detector contains 50,000 tons of purified water. Beginning a trend, we are informed that there are 100 billion times more atoms in this water than there are stars in the universe. The purpose of the detector is, hopefully, to record an event which is so extremely unlikely, it may happen only once in a million million billion billion years. Since this is over a hundred billion billion times longer than the current age of the Universe, success would seem doubtful. However science and statistics come to the rescue. If, to simplify, one proton takes a billion years to decay, then out of one billion protons, one is likely to decay inside a year. The Super Kamiokande detector contains enough protons for this to happen.

Quarks are the smallest building blocks of matter, combining to form protons which are extremely stable. However according to some GUTs (Grand Unified Theories) two quarks may brush together closely enough to momentarily produce and exchange x-particles, resulting in the proton's decay. Again according to some theories, these x-particles may be billions of billions times heavier than the proton inside which the whole process takes place. This would seem to be a problem, but Quantum Theory tells us that as long as these extraordinarily heavy particles are exchanged over such a short time that their presence cannot be measured directly, then the fact that they seem impossible to create doesn't matter. Shades of Schrodinger's cat!

The importance of this is that it would help to explain a puzzle of the Universe - why it exists at all. Originally, it might be expected that equal numbers of quarks and antiquarks would be created in the Big Bang and would proceed to annihilate each other, leaving a Universe of pure energy. But if there was even the tiniest difference between them, one lone extra quark produced for each billion quarks and antiquarks rushing to mutual annihilation, it would account for all the matter in the Universe today. So we come to the Big Bang - and more big numbers. 400 billion galaxies, each containing 400 billion stars, each 1 million times bigger than Earth are squeezed into a volume the size of a baseball, which expands to form the
resent day Universe, which of course is still expanding.

Krauss continues the saga of his oxygen atom from its creation through its destruction in exploding stars to its re-creation and destruction again and again until it finally reaches the present, Earth. And although the Big Bang and its aftermath are fascinating, Earth must be our primary interest. The history of Earth, and the origin of life, is far stranger than fiction. Apparently there were a number of large meteorite impacts so severe that the entire oceans were vaporized. At other times Earth froze like a giant snowball. Through it all, life survived, somehow. Krauss theorizes that 'black smokers' may be a key. Here, in the depths of the oceans, sulfur eating bacteria may have survived, at temperatures up to 1000C, near hydrothermal vents.

Life has developed and then sadly been almost extinguished many times in Earth's history. There was a great expansion of life in the Cambrian era, before the Earth went through its freezing cycles. Afterwards there was a significant change from symbiosis to competition, which hastened evolution, but life was expelled from Eden. The last chapter in the book is titled Through a Glass Darkly and speculates on possible futures for the oxygen atom and humanity. This chapter, and the entire book, should be required reading for all SF writers and indeed all SF readers. Let me repeat one of the quotations the author uses, from Yogi Berra. 'The future ain't what it used to be.'

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