Tyson: Death by Black Hole

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole : and Other Cosmic Quandaries. New York : W.W. Norton, 2007. 384 pages.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist who writes a monthly column in Natural History about the universe. Death by Black Hole collects forty-two of these essays, which cover fascinating topics, from black holes to the first few seconds of the universe to light to stardust to more. This is the kind of book that will give you endless cocktail conversation starters:

  • ”Did you know that the sun doesn’t always rise in the east and set in the west?”
  • “Did you know that Kodak has an entire research division devoted to developing film for astrophysicists?”
  • “Have you ever heard of a stellar nursery? No, I mean the kind where stars are born.”
  • “Do you know exactly why physicists say we’re all made from stardust?”
  • “Do you agree with the Copernican principle?”
  • “Did you know it’s possible that a comet named Apophis might hit the Pacific Ocean in 2036, obliterating America’s West Coast?”
  • “Do you know why we call the timepiece strapped around your wrist a ‘watch’?”

Ok, I’m sure that if you used these all at once, you’d come off as insufferable. But if you just talk about one or two, I’ll bet you’ll be fascinating. And just so it doesn’t torment you, I’m going to answer a few of these questions (but to really understand it, you should read the book).

  • Watches were invented when the British government called for a reliable timepiece so that their navy could navigate reliably. When John Harrison finally did invent them, they were considered as important to a ship as the sailor who stands watch in the ship’s bow. So, they called it a ‘watch.’
  • The Copernican principle is “in the absence of dogma and data, it is safer to be guided by the notion that we are not special.” For some reason, the way that it’s worded makes me laugh every time I read it!
  • The reason we’re all made of stardust is that all elements other than hydrogen were originally created in stars. Eventually, the stars exploded, scattering (among other things) carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen throughout the universe. People, and everything around us, can all be broken into elements, so at our deepest level, we’ve been created by stars.
  • Stellar nurseries are big clouds of gas floating around in the universe; eventually, conditions trigger some of the gas to compress, forming baby stars.

In case you can’t tell, I really enjoyed this book. I knew next to nothing about space going into it, and Tyson explains both the more complicated science and the simpler stuff in a way I could easily understand. The best part, though, was that Tyson is obviously still in awe of space, and he brings that to the reader. Now I have a sudden passion for astronomy, and I’ve been talking my family’s ear off about it (the above paragraphs give you a taste of what they’ve been hearing).

The only drawback was Tyson’s occasional attempts at humor; I think that jokes that might work in a lecture, or a conversation, don’t always translate well to the written page (I’ve noticed a tendency among popular science writers to include more than their share of bad jokes). But that didn’t get in the way of the science involved, and towards the end Tyson broke out some truly amusing stories, including one about the movie "Titanic". Apparently, the night sky after the Titanic had sunk is all wrong, and Tyson had been bothered by it for years, especially since the director took such pains with things like the correct dinnerware. Finally, Tyson finds himself at a dinner with the director, James Cameron:

What better occasion to tell him of his errant ways with the Titanic sky. So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, “The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!” I have never before been so politely, yet thoroughly, silenced. I meekly returned to my appetizer, mildly embarrassed for having raised the issue. Two months later, a phone call comes to my planetarium office. It was a computer visualization expert from a post-production unit for James Cameron. He said that for their reissue of the film Titanic, in a Special Collector’s Edition, they would be restoring some scenes and he was told I may have an accurate night sky they might want to use for this edition. Sure enough, I generated the right image of the night sky for every possible direction that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio could turn their heads while the ship sank.

Ok, I just want to share one more story; it’s a short one, I promise:

A few years ago I got a phone call from a marketing executive who wanted to light up the Moon with the logo of her company. She wanted to know how she might proceed. After slamming down the phone, I called her back and politely explained why it was a bad idea.

Can you even imagine the thought process that went into that phone call?!

Go read this book: the essays are usually around six or seven pages, so it’s easy to find a stopping point. Afterwards, I guarantee you’ll find yourself glancing up at the night sky a bit more often, and impressing strangers at parties!

Favorite Passages

"The history of human discovery is characterized by the boundless desire to extend the senses beyond our inborn limits."

"Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless one thing or another baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery."

"In the twentieth century, astrophysicists in the United States discovered galaxies, the expanding of the universe, the nature of supernovas, quasars, black holes, gamma-ray bursts, the origin of the elements, the cosmic microwave background, and most of the known planets in orbit around solar systems other than our own. Although the Russians reached one or two places before us, we sent space probes to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. American probes have also landed on Mars and on the asteroid Eros. And American astronauts have walked on the Moon. Nowadays most Americans take all this for granted, which is practically a working definition of culture: something everyone does or knows about, but no longer actively notices. Snobby people from other countries like to make fun of the U.S. for its abbreviated history and its uncouth culture, particularly compared with the millennial legacies from Europe, Africa, and Asia. But 500 years from now historians will surely see the twentieth century as the American century-the one in which American discoveries in science and technology rank high among the world’s list of treasured achievements."

"If you’re not swayed by the academic arguments, consider the financial consequences. Allow intelligent design into science textbooks, lecture halls, and laboratories, and the cost to the frontier of scientific discovery--the frontier that drives the economies of the future--would be incalculable. I don’t want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to be taught that anything they don’t understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capability. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.

-- Notes by EVA

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