"And behold the greatest mystery of them all: an unopened can of diet Pepsi floats in water while an unopened can of regular Pepsi sinks." - From DEATH BY BLACK HOLE
On graduating from high school near the top of my class, I had visions of becoming an aeronautical engineer helping send missions to the stars. (This was in 1967 during the height of the "space race".) But, the realities of university-level physics and differential calculus soon brought me back to earth with a crash. And then I got drafted. If only I'd had DEATH BY BLACK HOLE to read, I might've been inspired to greater academic efforts. I could've become a superstar in the field of astrophysics, you think?
Well, probably not; I'm more of a Life Sciences kind of guy.
In forty-two chapters arrayed in seven sections, astrophysicist Neil deGasse Tyson guides us on a grand tour of the universe from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago to its projected end trillions of years hence when all energy is dissipated and cosmic death arrives with a whimper.
Section 1: "The challenges of knowing what is knowable in the universe" covers (the inadequacies of) our built-in human senses, the universality of physical laws, the ability of scientific observations to fool the observer, the potential trap of overabundant information, and what can be learned using the most rudimentary of measuring systems, which, in Tyson's example, is an upright stick stuck into the ground.
Did you know that Saturn's rings will be gone in about 100 million years? Book your seat on the tour early.
Section 2: "The challenges of discovering the contents of the cosmos" sets forth the genesis and journey of the Sun's energy, the (re)definition of "habitable zone" when considering the Solar System's planets and moons, asteroids, Lagrange Points, and antimatter.
Did you know that there's an asteroid named Ralph? Actually, I like to contemplate one named "Bob."
Section 3: "How nature presents herself to an inquiring mind" comprises discussions of physical and numerical constants, the speed of light, orbital mechanics, density, the visible light spectrum, rays other than visible light (radio, micro, infrared, ultraviolet, x, gamma), the colors of the cosmos, cosmic plasma, and the universe's temperature extremes.
Did you know that the coldest temperature ever achieved in a laboratory was 500 picokelvins (0.0000000005 degrees K)? Do you suppose the lab gnomes wore their wooly longjohns that day?
Section 4: "The challenges and triumphs of knowing how we got here" explores space dust, cosmic chemistry within supernovas, element synthesis within stars' cores (hydrogen to helium to carbon to nitrogen to oxygen to sodium to magnesium to silicon ... to, lastly, iron), the necessity of water for "habitability", the sources and properties of terrestrial water, the cosmic genesis of the molecular building blocks of life, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and Earth's radio footprint in the universe.
Did you know that hydrogen, carbon and oxygen are the top three ingredients of life on Earth? What, not chocolate? Say it ain't so, Joe!
Section 5: "All the ways the cosmos wants to kill us" delves into the inherent cosmic chaos, killer asteroids and comets, the eventual deaths of the Earth, Sun and universe, the properties of black holes, types of killer radiation, and DEATH BY BLACK HOLE.
Did you know that in 2036 the asteroid Apophis may slam into the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California generating a tsunami that'll drown the former and devastate the Pacific Rim? Dude, surf's up!
Section 6: "The ruffled interface between cosmic discovery and the public's reaction to it" surveys the unthinking things people say, the fear of certain numbers, scientific bafflement, the historically shifting cultural and national nodes of scientific discovery, the erosion of nocturnal darkness by city lights, and Hollywood's misrepresentation of the cosmos.
What is the error in the following statement?
"Days (i.e. the period of daylight) get shorter in the winter and longer in the summer."
Section 7: "When ways of knowing collide" describes the first two minutes after the Big Bang, the necessarily irreconcilable differences between religion and science, and the boundaries of our ignorance.
Did you know that Galileo reportedly stated during his trial, "The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go"? Right on, bro.
Sections 6 and 7 represent a change in the tone of Tyson's narrative in that, to a large degree, they reflect the author's opinions rather than observed scientific facts. Indeed, a portion of Section 6 the author himself describes as a "rant". I'm not convinced that Neil's personal views provide a smoothly contiguous ending, but the whole is so superlative that I'll not nit-pick or knock off a star. Indeed, the strength of Tyson's writing is that he makes esoteric knowledge accessible to the average reader (such as one who bombed out of university physics and calculus). An example of his humorously common touch is:
"As a child, I knew that at night, with the lights out, infrared vision would discover monsters hiding in the bedroom closet only if they were warm-blooded. But everybody knows that your average bedroom monster is reptilian and cold-blooded. Infrared vision would thus miss a bedroom monster completely because it would simply blend in with the walls and the door."
In the perfect reading experience, I'm both diverted and educated. Both elements may otherwise be present or not. An example of a book that's entertaining but thoroughly non-instructional would be, say, any one of the Jack Reacher thrillers by Lee Child, e.g. BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE. At the opposite extreme would be any random school text regardless of how competently it presents the material. DEATH BY BLACK HOLE joins two other books that immediately come to mind that satisfy immensely on both levels: A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by Bill Bryson and ROVING MARS by Steve Squyres. Tyson has written a volume for any inquiring and thinking reader who's ever gazed up at a cloudless night sky with wonder and the thought,"Cool! What's that all about?"
DEATH BY BLACK HOLE should be required reading for incoming high school freshmen; early on, it might get them focused on a career worth pursuing.