Chemical Evolution:
Origin of the Elements, Molecules, and Living Systems

Stephen F. Mason

Oxford University Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1992
I am used to thinking of chemistry as one of the less interesting of the natural sciences, sandwiched between the splendour of physics and the miracles of modern molecular biology. Chemical Evolution has made me reconsider this, although in a curious way it also confirms my prejudices. It concentrates on the borders of chemistry, where it meets astrophysics to give interstellar chemistry, biology to give biochemistry, and history in the history of science.

Chemical Evolution starts by looking at the elements. It goes through the history of their discovery, classification and structure — Dalton, Mendeleyev, Rutherford, etc. — and then goes on to look at their origin and their distribution throughout the universe. This material covers the details of stellar nucleosynthetic pathways and explains how these tie in with what is known about the composition of the interstellar medium and the distribution of matter throughout the universe. This leads in to a close up look at the solar system, where a detailed chapter on the composition and classification of meteorites is combined with more direct evidence for the chemical composition of the different planets. The results are used to evaluate different models for the formation of the solar system.

The focus then moves to biology, again beginning with a historical approach. The chapter on the energetics of living systems contains a nice presentation of the mitochondrial and chloroplast power systems, taking a slightly different approach (with more chemical detail) to that of biochemistry texts. The chapter on genealogy and reproduction is fairly standard stuff and the chapter on the origins of life could have been extended, but the overall presentation is good.

The last chapter, on chirality, combines physics and biology. It gives a physical explanation of the L-amino acid and D-sugar chirality of biological systems. The non-symmetry of the weak force, when only spatial (rather than full CPT) parity is considered, results in a 10^-14 difference between the stability of the different forms. With a fairly plausible flow reactor model for the initial pre-biotic environment, this is enough to give around 98% probability for a transition to the present handedness from an initial metastable racemic system.

All round Chemical Evolution is a fascinating book, which goes into much more detail than is found in popular accounts while maintaining an approachable presentation. The reader will need a solid understanding of chemistry and a basic knowledge of biology, physics and astronomy.

October 1992

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%T Chemical Evolution
%S Origin of the Elements, Molecules, and Living Systems
%A Mason, Stephen F.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1991
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0198552726
%P xiii,317pp