Any effort to condense the history of our solar system is a noble and valiant one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, even more so when it covers an aspect of the solar system which, as Natalie Starkey’s Catching Stardust emphasises throughout, is something we know so little of. However, Starkey’s slick, joyous exploration of comets and asteroids undercuts her subject’s colossal and complex nature, since Catching Stardust nails that delicate point of being a science book that non-science folk can enjoy. Starkey’s debut book makes for both an enjoyable history lesson on how comets and asteroids fit into our solar system, but crucially, it both aims for and succeeds in making a compelling case for why these barge-like, inactive slabs of space rock should be examined more.
Catching Stardust’s consensus is that comets and asteroids are rich in ingredients that form the basics of life. Unlike the various planets these monoliths orbit around, comets and asteroids remain mostly unaffected since their birth and thus all the more valuable for scientific investigation, an aspect that Starkey highlights with immediacy and gusto in the book’s early pages. From here, the book traverses the length and breadth of the gargantuan history of our rocky neighbours, forever adrift in the engulfing cosmos. What makes this so readable is both its subject matter and its execution. Condensing millions of years’ worth of history into this slim volume is quite the mammoth task, but the book fails to fall into the trap of overwhelming the uninitiated reader. Starkey opens the story gradually, drip-feeding the reader with the basic intel of comets and asteroids before taking the reader off into the stars as she uncovers the various different types of asteroids and comets, previous man-made missions to explore these rocks and how each of their component ingredients makes for intriguing study. She helps you up, rather than just looking down at you. Starkey’s slick, concise narratives add to the book’s readability factor. Deceptively packing in countless streams of historical and scientific fact, she commands the book.
Catching Stardust does have a tendency to reiterate the same conclusions on multiple occasions, i.e. the need to probe comets and asteroids deeper than we do now, which is mostly via infra-red telescopes. Its repetition unbalances the narrative slightly, making it a cumbersome read in places, especially since so much material is covered that could allow further conclusions. However, where it falls on the shoulders of future generations to seek out comets and asteroids, it’s the mission of this book to convince us that such generations should aspire to these deep-space explorations in the first place. It would be harsh to determine this rhythm-like repetition as a negative when so much of the work’s propulsion is geared towards achieving an understanding of how valuable comets and asteroids are to us.
The enthusiasm that Starkey radiates for her subject matter can’t be deterred. She paints an evocative picture of how comets and asteroids slot into the solar system. However, she doesn’t lose sight of her objective to convince us of our continued study of them either. A coherent, gleeful and spry read, Catching Stardust makes a robust case for continuing to make sense of such colossal, sprawling entities.
CATCHING STARDUST / AUTHOR: NATALIE STARKEY / PUBLISHER: BLOOMSBURY SIGMA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW