Book: From Stars to Stalagmites

Sample chapters available at

Scientific American book club selection. Reviews and comments:

“Getting to know of atoms and molecules and their motions was not easy — Braterman pulls us into the story of the people who got us that hard-won knowledge. A superb combination of history and scientific explanation!” Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate Chemist and Writer

“… is extremely readable, even for those with limited scientific training … An excellent resource for general readers with a wide interest in all aspects of natural science.” CHOICE

“Each article is self-contained. They are well-researched showing how deeply the author has read into the background. Apart from being highly recommended for a wide adult readership, this would be an excellent book for teachers to give to students for enrichment, with the background to the chemistry going beyond the textbooks.” Chemistry World

“Each theme is presented within its historical and intellectual context, and is discussed in clear and well-written non-technical language. As such, the combination of history and science writing is extremely fruitful as seen from the educational perspective. The readership of this book consists of science students (physics, chemistry, astronomy, but also the Earth sciences), scientists, teachers, PhD supervisors, and science administrators. The book is great value for money.” Journal of Astronomical Data

“Using an historical approach, From Stars to Stalagmites teaches about science in an engaging and fun manner that should appeal to interested lay readers and professionals alike.” Richard Hirsh, Professor of History of Technology, Virginia Tech

“ A wonderful compilation of chemistry, history, and human endeavors. The chapter on Haber was superb! … This text is something that every chemist should read!” Prof Diana Mason, Regional Director and Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas , University of North Texas

“This book covers a lot of material very quickly and in an easy to follow style that gives the science in the context of the history and the people involved. This book is a great way to bring everything together either as an introductory overview before tackling a topic in more detail or as an enjoyable whistle stop tour through human progress and knowledge.” British Centre for Science Education Blog

“It’s a terrific read and the idea of intertwining the facts of chemistry with the history and personalities of the scientists who discovered it works brilliantly.” John Wiltshire, Systems Engineer, Nelson Gold Medallist for Creativity

“This highly readable book does an excellent job of explaining scientific concepts in plain language, and brilliantly connects social history with scientific history and concepts. Strongly recommended for readers of all backgrounds.” Oscar Liu, Senior Principal Scientist, Merck

“On reflection some of the chapters come across as excellent materials for presentations. The book is consistently interesting and clearly written. It is a valued addition to my bookshelf and a fine example of popular science writing.” (Reader, Open University)

Feynman once selected, as the single most important statement in science, that everything is made of atoms. It follows that the properties of everything depend on how these atoms are joined together, giving rise to the vast field we know of today as chemistry. In this unique book specifically written to bridge the gap between chemistry and the layman, Braterman has put together a series of linked essays on chemistry related themes that are particularly engaging.

The book begins with the age of the earth, and concludes with the life cycle of stars. In between, there are atoms old and new, the ozone hole mystery and how it was solved, synthetic fertilisers and explosives, reading the climate record, the extraction of metals, the wetness of water, and how the greenhouse effect on climate really works. A chapter in praise of uncertainty leads on to the “fuzziness” and sharing of electrons, and from there to molecular shape, grass-green and blood-red, the wetness of water, and molecular recognition as the basis of life.

Organised in such a way as to illustrate and develop underlying principles and approaches, this book will appeal to anyone interested in chemistry, as well as its history and key personalities. Where many other titles have failed, this book succeeds brilliantly in capturing the spirit and essence of chemistry and delivering the science in easily digestible terms.

Contents: Foreword and acknowledgements

1. The age of the Earth – an age-old question; Who thought what and when, and why [but for an important correction, see here]

2. Atoms old and new; From Democritus toRutherford

3.The banker who lost his head; Lavoisier, gunpowder, revolution, and the birth of modern chemistry

4. From particles to molecules, with a note on homoeopathy;Dalton, Avogadro, Cannizzaro; why did it take so long for the penny to drop?

5. The discovery of the noble gases – what’s so new about neon? A tiny difference in density leads to a whole new group of elements

6. Science, war, and morality; the tragedy of Fritz Haber;Ammonia, explosives, fertilizer, gas warfare, and the most unintended of consequences

7. The ozone hole story – a mystery with three suspects;Volcano, refrigerator, or jet plane?

8. Rain gauge, thermometer, calendar, warning; What a stalagmite tells us about climate past; what history tells us about climate future

9. Making metal; Iron from the sky. From gold to bronze to iron. Philistines and Phoenicians. Domestic uses of arsenic. Smelting and electrolysis. Eros in Piccadilly. The jet age

10. In praise of uncertainty; Philosophically, statistically, quantum mechanically, and computationally unavoidable, which is just as well

11. Everything is fuzzy; And the smaller, the fuzzier. Waves are particles. Particles are waves. The crisis in the atom. More uncertainty.

12. Why things have shapes; How atoms connect. Lewis’s magic cubes. Stealing or sharing. Double counting. The shapes of molecules.

13. Why grass is green or why our blood is red; An old question answered. From sunlight to sugar. A brief history of colour vision. Jumping electrons. Blood and iron.

14. Why water is weird; The hydrogen bond. Floating ice and foreign policy. Molecular recognition and the molecules of life

15. The Sun, the Earth, the greenhouse; Yellow-hot sun, infrared-warm Earth. How the greenhouse really works. When it comes to carbon dioxide, more is more. Disinformation and denialism

16. In the beginning; From Big Bang to small planet. The birth and death of stars. Supernovas and red giants. The making of the elements. Vital dust

Notes, Glossary, Index

  1. Pedro Molina Sanchez

    Is there an audiobook version of your book? I’m finding easier to go through books in audio format these days on account of my two hours daily driving commute.


  2. So if I understand your discussion in items 13 & 15 on pages 238 & 239 correctly, global warming is a result of the Clean Air Act, which we obviously need to repeal. 🙂


  3. Paul Bruggink

    Text boxes would be a giant step in the right direction.


  4. Paul Bruggink

    I just started reading “From Stars to Stalagmites” and am enjoying it very much, except for one very frustrating flaw: end notes instead of the much more logical footnotes.

    Your end notes are a mixture of interesting comments and dull citations to obscure literature that I will never peruse, so I have to flip to the end of the book each time to see which type of end note is being offered. If they were at the bottom of the page on which they occur, this would not be necessary.

    If you write another popular-level book, please insist on footnotes. If your publisher won’t do it, find another publisher. End notes ought to be outlawed.


    • Good advice. Perhaps footnotes for literature refs, endnotes for sidecomments that would disrupt the main text? And, of course, a statement saying so


      • Paul Bruggink

        I would much prefer the opposite: footnotes for side comments and endnotes for literature refs. Footnotes for both would also be fine. I have never thought of footnotes as disrupting the main text. I can read them or skip them with equal ease.

        Regarding your question about how I came across the book, I wish I could answer that for you, but I don’t remember. After all, I bought it over two months ago. 🙂

        The possibilities are: (1) from your blog, since I am one of the 1,495 amazing people who follow you, (2) from a comment by you on a blog by Tyler Francke, James McGrath, Michael Roberts, etc., (3) from a comment by you on FB’s Celebrating Creation by Natural Selection!, or(4) stumbling upon it, recognizing your name from all those blogs and comments., and deciding to give it a try.

        My money’s on #4. Keep those blogs and comments coming!!


      • Maybe this is where text boxes come into their own.


  5. Really enjoyed the section about the paradox theorem


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