Rising Star

Cosmic Wonder

A review of Cosmic Wonder by Nathan Hellner-Mestelman

Published on March 14, 2024

Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I was spoiled with unobstructed views of the stars. On one particularly starry night, a question sprang to mind: what contains the universe? Such questions – including mine in different terms – drive science writer Nathan Hellner-Mestelman’s captivating exploration of the cosmos as we know it in his debut non-fiction book, Cosmic Wonder: Our Place in the Epic Story of the Universe. 

Cosmic Wonder
Our Place in the Epic Story of the Universe

Nathan Hellner-Mestelman

Linda Leith Publishing

From the title, you might reasonably believe that Cosmic Wonder will unmask at least some of the mysteries of the universe, but Hellner-Mestelman quickly disavows you of that assumption. “This book is not supposed to make sense—not because the author is a bad writer, but simply because the universe is too awesomely vast to be understood,” he writes in the book’s forwarding disclaimer. 

A bad writer Hellner-Mestelman is not, though he is remarkably young (sixteen years of age at the time of publication). And while the universe may defy understanding, he makes a good case for why it should inspire awe – that feeling of wonder and fear. 

Cosmic Wonder is organized according to core themes: the vast universe; the origin story of the universe and life on Earth; the cosmic future; the potential for life beyond Earth; most importantly, humanity’s place in this grand and improbable story. 

In finer terms Cosmic Wonder delivers a primer on the Milky Way Galaxy, lays out theories on the expansiveness of the universe, unpacks what we know about matter and the elusive dark matter, explains the origins and evolution of the basic units of life – RNA and DNA – and delves into rogue planets and the potential for extraterrestrial life. And more. 

As for those stars I love to gaze at, Hellerman-Mestelman explains that “Most of the stars in our night sky are hundreds, or sometimes thousands of light-years away, and since it takes centuries or even millennia for light to cross that distance, it creates a trippy optical illusion: we’re viewing the night sky in the distant past.” 

Imbued with dry-wit humour, and a soupçon of existential dread, Cosmic Wonder manages to be both sobering and reverential as it explores these rich areas of scientific inquiry. Hellner-Mestelman’s illustrations bring to life some of the trickier concepts, for example cosmic inflation – the biggest bang in cosmic history (bigger than the one you’re thinking of) – and cosmic singularity, one of an infinite number of scenarios that might bring about the end of our universe. 

Hellner-Mestelman’s exposition on the definition of life is particularly intriguing. “We keep assuming that water and carbon are the two key ingredients for life. But what if they’re not?” He points to the discovery by the Cassini spacecraft’s RADAR team in 2010 that demonstrated some forms of life could theoretically thrive on cold methane and ethane. 

Richly researched, perhaps Cosmic Wonder could have named-dropped more of the people leading these groundbreaking studies, but an extensive bibliography will lead curious readers in the right directions. 

Cosmic Wonder is a travel guide for explorers with no known destination. Put another way, this is a book of questions. While it would be wrong to suggest Hellner-Mestelman entirely deprives the reader of the satisfaction of answers, he is unpretentious as he charts the current knowledge about the universe’s explosive origins and the unlikely evolution of human life on Earth. 

About one thing Hellner-Mestelman is certain: human conflict and destruction are colossal wastes. “It’s unfortunate that we are so obsessed with arming our planet against itself, rather than looking outward toward the universe and the future of the human race.” 

Another certainty: this is one up-and-coming writer to watch.mRb

Meaghan Thurston is a Montreal-based arts and science writer, co-editor of the anthology With the World to Choose From: Seven Decades of the Beatty Lecture at McGill University, and mother to two budding readers.



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