Even readers with no prior experience with theoretical physics, cosmology, or astronomy, will find Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007) by Neil deGrasse Tyson, very accessible. In fact, it may very well be the ideal starter manual both for aspiring cosmologists and non-specialist readers who are curious about the history and ultimate destiny of the universe. The vast majority of cosmology books are dry and overly laden with mathematical equations and technical jargon.
While such information is very useful for specialists, it would instantly put off a non-scientific audience. Tyson, on the other hand, keeps his presentation engaging and fun by introducing each topic clearly and concisely, successfully simplifying complex astronomical concepts and making them easy to understand. On the subject of black holes, he helps us understand them by asking us to visualize certain phenomena with each of our senses. He also uses funny analogies and examples to explain physical principles.
First, in seeking to prove that the laws of physics are universal, he suggests the use of science as a sort of universal Esperanto in gaining the peaceful acquaintance of alien cultures: “You don’t even know whether shaking their hands – if indeed they have hands to shake – would be considered an act of war or of peace. Your best hope is to find a way to communicate using the language of science”(p. 33). A few pages later, he proves the universality of physics by ordering a hot cocoa in a dessert shop in Pasadena, California.
He ordered whipped cream with his drink, however, the chocolate mix did not show any evidence of it, in spite of the waiter’s assertions to the contrary: `Since whipped cream has a very low density and floats on all liquids that humans consume, I offered the waiter two possible explanations: either somebody forgot to add the whipped cream to my hot cocoa or the universal laws of physics were different in this restaurant”(p. 37). If the latter explanation was correct, perhaps said dessert shop could become a tourist site where patrons can hurriedly dine on entrees that disappear at random intervals.
To introduce concepts such as x-rays, he cites popular shows such as Superman and Star Trek to give the audience a familiar point of reference. However, the most interesting part of the book was chapter 23, when he used the children’s classic ‘Goldilocks and the Three [Planets] to compare the habitability of Venus, Earth and Mars. Who knew one could compare planets to porridge? `Once upon a time, some four billion years ago, the formation of the solar system was nearly complete. ` …
`And among the dozens of planets that had formed, some were on unstable orbits and crashed into the sun or Jupiter. Others were ejected from the solar system altogether. In the end, the few that remained had orbits that were `just right` to survive billions of years” (p. 207-8). Of course Venus was much too hot with its oppressive atmosphere of carbon dioxide with an atmospheric pressure 90 times that of the earth. Even though it has a reputation for being the planet of love, the climate is most reminiscent of Hell.
Mars, on the other hand, is much too cold. Even though there is water at the poles, the average surface temperatures are on par with the Antarctic…sometimes it can get even worse than that. Earth is just right because of its distance from the sun, a wide range of habitable areas (for a wide variety of species), and enough water to sustain them. Another enjoyable chapter was “Hollywood Night”, which highlighted many of the myths and misconceptions the film industry uses to entertain people. Overall, the book was lively and engrossing.
Placing his work in the context of Galileo, James Joule, Jacob Cornelius Kapteyn, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, he brings the excitement of new discoveries closer to us. It is almost as though we are there with the great scientists of the time. After one semester of Astronomy, I was already familiar with most concepts Tyson introduces and could therefore very easily follow his arguments. The outline of the book was comparable to many philosophers because he would pose a question at the beginning of the chapter and try to present a compelling argument for each section.
The only part that merits criticism is chapter five, which in my opinion is redundant. There are many experiments a reader can carry out with a stick and a patch of mud to measure time and the position of the sun, but the chapter does not introduce any new information or arguments. While Tyson successfully manages to infuse humor, unfortunately, the jokes tend to repeat and reappear in different chapters. For example, he twice mentions that if the sun were yellow, snow would also be yellow “whether or not it fell near fire hydrants.
” Recently, there has been much discussion among many scientists and philosophers that mysticism and empiricism are not as separate as most people seem to think. The concluding section of Tyson’s book gives a strong and coherent description of the relationship between religion and science. Ultimately, Tyson concludes that there is no such relationship. In the future, I am looking forward to learning much more about life, the universe, and everything, but this is a good start for now. References Tyson, N. D. (2007). Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. NY: W. W. Norton.