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Book Review:
Children of the Stars
by Daniel R. Altschuler
Cambridge University Press, 2002

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Are we alone in the universe? How did we get here? How has the universe changed since the big bang? A new book by Daniel R. Altschuler, director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, makes a big bang itself as it creatively attempts to answer some of these questions while covering topics ranging from astronomy to physics, and paleontology to geology.

In the book, Children of the Stars: Our Origin, Evolution and Destiny (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Altschuler contends, "It is not enough for scientists alone to understand the workings of nature. It is important that every citizen understands. ... My book is an effort to remedy this situation."

Altschuler has close associations with Cornell University as the on-site leader of the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. Managed by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Cornell's Ithaca campus for the National Science Foundation, Arecibo Observatory is recognized as one of the most important national centers for astronomical research, including radio astronomy and planetary radar.

Born to German immigrants in Montevideo, Uruguay, Altschuler obtained his bachelor's degree at Duke University and his Ph.D. at Brandeis University. He is professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras and has been director of the observatory since 1991.

Altschuler writes with such clarity in Children of the Stars that even younger readers can gain an understanding of the complexities of the universe from reading it. This accords with Altschuler's long belief in the importance of educating the public about science. Among his most notable achievements at the observatory has been the construction of the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor and Education Center, which attracts about 125,000 visitors a year and is the site of summer science teacher workshops. He begins his book by tracing the history of astronomy as a discipline, recognizing the work of such early astronomers and scholars as Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus. He then discusses the aggregation of interstellar gas, dust and rocks that led to the formation of Earth and the other planets in the solar system. He proceeds to investigate the evolution of life on Earth, potential threats to our planet and, finally, the question of the possibility of life elsewhere.

While his book thoroughly explores the realm of galaxies, solar systems and stars, it is Altschuler's writing style that shines brightest. As Sue Bowler, editor of Astronomy and Geophysics, the journal published by Britain's Royal Astronomical Society, writes, "With its combination of straightforward, clear explanations and excellent and well-produced illustrations, all in colour, this is a concise exposition of the Earth story [and] its likely endings."

With his witty style, Altschuler keeps the reader's attention throughout, as when he dispels the notion of human encounters with aliens with exaggerated human characteristics, like big eyes and heads: "Looking at the diversity of life on Earth and thinking about how it has evolved should convince anyone that any aliens will have as much resemblance to us as a doorknob."

He deepens his explanations with the use of graphic examples, such as this description of a neutron star, the highly dense, collapsed core of a star that is thrown out in a stellar explosion called a supernova: "If you were to squeeze the population of the Earth -- 6 billion people -- into a small can of sardines, it would weigh as much as if you had filled it with neutron star material."

Accompanying Altschuler's text is a mosaic of photographs so brilliant that they are a close runner-up to actually staring up at the night sky on a clear summer night. And the author is able to convey the more difficult concepts with the inclusion of charts, graphs and even scientific cartoons by artist Nick Downes.

In his chapter on stars and constellations, Altschuler writes: "The fate of a star, once its leisurely life of hydrogen fusion ends, depends on its mass. Some stars end their lives violently and others fade away quietly."

Altschuler's Children of the Stars is a star whose popularity will not quickly fade.

The Spanish-language edition of the book, Hijos de las Estrellas, recently was awarded second prize for best book of the year by the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature, a rare recognition for a book about science.

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