The Stardust Revolution

The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars

Now Available from Prometheus Books

Front Cover of The Stardust Revolution

The Stardust Revolution tells the story of a scientific revolution in the making—the stardust revolution. Today, stardust science is revealing an amazing new part of what it means to be human, the story of our origin in the stars.

Twentieth-century astronomy was dominated by astrophysics, the search for the physical origins and structure of the universe. Now a new breed of scientists—astrobiologists and astrochemists—are taking the study of life into the space age. Astrobiologists study the origins, evolution and distribution of life, not just on Earth, but in the universe. These stardust scientists aren’t probing the universe’s physical structure, but rather its biological nature. Evolutionary theory is entering the space age.

The stardust story joins the great scientific debates of the 20th century – evolution and the nature of the universe – into the new great quest of our age. For these stardust revolutionaries, the focus isn’t on elucidating an expanding universe, but an evolving one. Stardust scientists are literally tracing the natural history of the cosmos from the Big Bang to our bodies. They’re making the evolutionary links from atoms formed by stars, to the molecules of interstellar space and the emergence of living planets.

The Stardust Revolution traces the history of the birth of stardust science from medieval alchemists’ quest to understand the mystical nature of the elements, to today’s global race to discover another living planet. It’s an epic scientific story told through the personalities, struggles and insights of a scientific cast that includes some of the 20th century’s greatest minds, and the most ambitious of the 21st.

These stardust revolutionaries often faced a scientific establishment that dissuaded and ridiculed their research; that denied, dismissed, or simply ignored findings.

It’s the story of stardust scientist and Nobel laureate Charles Townes, who after pioneering a way of listening to molecules on Earth, in the mid-1960s decided to look for them in deep space using a new device, a radio telescope. He would start by searching for that most basic molecule: water. “The chairman of the department of astronomy here, George Field, a very good theorist, an excellent scientist, he kept telling me, ‘No, it can’t be there. I can prove to you it can’t be there,” recalls Townes at his University of California, Berkeley office. At a time when the vast majority of astronomers believed Earth was an oasis in a cosmic desert, Townes discovered that the universe isn’t just a little wet, it’s a cosmic sea.

The Stardust Revolution is the story of Towne’s former student, the University of Arizona astrochemist Lucy Ziurys. In the past 20 years she’s identified almost two dozen organic molecules in interstellar space, showing that we live in a ‘green’ universe – one filled with the molecules of life. For Ziurys the ultimate key to understanding the origins and evolution of life on Earth isn’t on Earth. To understand why terrestrial life uses only 20 of the possible dozens of potential amino acids, or why iron is the metal atom around which our blood’s hemoglobin binds we must look to the stars. To Ziurys and a growing cadre of followers, our story doesn’t begin on Earth, it begins with stardust.

And the stardust story is that of the young Canadian astronomer, David Charbonneau. He led the discovery of exoplanets, planets around stars other than the Sun, using ground-based telescopes that are simpler than those used by many amateur astronomers. Charbonneau’s goal is the ultimate of the stardust revolution: the discovery of the first Earth-like planet around another star. An alien Earth.

“What drives us is not knowing that we’re making some minor contribution. What drives us is the hope that we can be part of some big change in how we think about the universe,” says Charbonneau. “For the first time in human history we don’t have to just speculate about whether there’s life elsewhere in the universe. Now we have the technology to actually look for Earth-like planets, and when we find them we’ll be able to study them for signs of life.”

The Stardust Revolution is about the questions we ask ourselves under the mystery and grandeur of the night sky. How am I connected to the cosmos? Are we alone in the universe? How have we come from stardust to souls?