Author(s): Ben McFarland
I proposed to write a popular science book titled The Quickening: How Chemistry Shaped Biology that would tell the story of how the familiar columns of the periodic table of elements constrained and guided the development of life. During the process of writing and publication, the title changed to River of Life and then A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life. I also worked with two artists, Gala Bent and Mary Anderson, to produce 40 illustrations for the text. The book was peer-reviewed and accepted by Oxford University Press. It was published as A World from Dust in April 2016.
The original proposal set forward the two main points of the book:
1.) the earth provided a special chemical environment that, like a womb, nurtured new life; and
2.) this environment contained a path of chemical development: biological and geological cycles intermingled like wheels within wheels, following the rules of chemical reactions and rolling inexorably away from hydrogen toward oxygen, moving from left to right along the periodic table and producing complex life.
Inside the book’s front cover is the following summary:
The stacked boxes in the Periodic Table of the Elements hold surprises. These elements tell a story that gives a hidden order to chemistry, geology, biology, and even history.
In A World from Dust, Ben McFarland traces billions of years of evolution, beginning with math and ending with us. In this story, the periodic table helps us see new things. The world’s a stage built from geology, as oceans of water moved mountains and made chemical shields that protected ancient life. In this environment, the complexity of life was sequenced and shaped by a set of chemical rules. As cells became animals and ecosystems, colorful molecules caught the sun’s energy and oxygen was released. Oxygen was a key that changed the world and shifted the periodic table toward new elements and new possibilities in a predictable sequence. These events come alive in 40 original illustrations by print artist Gala Bent and medical illustrator Mary Anderson.
This is a book for anyone interested in the stories told by science. Rocks, elements, and life evolve as geology, chemistry, and biology are woven into a single narrative. McFarland connects the sciences with the arts, showing how history, painting, music, and literature inspire, and are inspired by, chemistry. Whatever your scientific background, you will find a new perspective on the old story of how the world came about.
McFarland, Ben. A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life. Oxford University Press, 2016.