Chad Bearden's Reviews > Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
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Aug 28, 08

bookshelves: popular-science
Read in August, 2008

When I was in middle school, I deduced, based on my love of dinosaurs, that I would grow up to be a scientist. I received good grades in science, so it seemed plausible. When I got to high school, my dear friend, Rachel, pointed out to me in the school library a copy of Stephen Hawkings' "A Brief History of Time". At that point, I shifted from paleontology to astrophysics. I even went to far as to send off to the University of Michigan about their physics program.

Then I started taking trig and calculus and my rocky relationship with the manipulation of numbers convinced me that literature was my thing.

And yet, despite casting away science as a potential profession, I've always harbored a love for understanding how things work. I try to read any science books I can, delving into things as complex as my limited brain can manage. I once read "Paradox Lost" by Phillip Wallace and realized that I should take closer note of the difficulty of what I was trying to read lest I fall in waay over my head. I'm sure that to any undergraduate physics student, there wasn't anything too mind-bending in that volume, but I should repeat: literature is my thing.

So in more recent years, I've been happy reading the more lay-friendly science writers. Carl Sagan, Robert Weinberg, James Gleick, and such. All of these men are geniouses in their own right, but they have an unusual knack for getting around all the hard math and esoteric (to me) equations and presenting the practically inpenetratable world of complex physics to people like me: readers who have a passable working knowledge of physical principles and a creative enough mind to almost picture something even when you don't fully understand it.

Enter into that fold the recently ubiquitous astrophysicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson. Tyson is basically the Carl Sagan of our generation. If you're not in the know, Carl Sagan made it his life's mission to bring science to the masses. He was its cheerleader shouting through the megaphone that was his many popular books and the accessable PBS mini-series, Cosmos. In the last several years, Tyson has taken up that mantle and would do Sagan proud.

In addition to being the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and hosting Nova Science Now (also on PBS!), and appearing a handful of times on shows like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report", he has also been writing physics-related essays for 'Natural History' magazine. This book, "Death By Black Hole" brings together 42 of those essays.

The collection is a pretty solid one, and even the weaker essays (tongue-in-cheek though it may have been, did we really need an essay about the scientific inaccuracies in Hollywood movies?) are filled with enough of Tyson's wit so that you're not bored by the content for too long.

And then there are the really good essays. Tyson is at his best when he's telling you, not about the inner workings of quantum particals, but about the process of science. One essay outlines how one might go on to discover the circumference of the Earth and invent geometry using only a stick. Another steps you through all the ways in which scientifically proven reality differs greatly from with is immediately observable.

There are a handful of essays that describe all the ways the universe wants to kill you, a few that get down to the nitty-gritty of how the universe evolved, and a few about the immense scale of the universe (in the direction of both the big and the small).

And interspesed throughout the essays are those magical moments (the whole reason I read popular physics writings) where a chill runs down my spine as I realize that the universe is something huge and beyond anyone's capacity to understand. Where the vastness and pure unknowable quality of everything becomes almost crushingly oppressive. I almost become afraid. There WAS a moment when the Big Bang occured, and SOMETHING was there before that, and I, nor any other person alive is likely to know what THAT was. Billions of years from now the universe will end, and no one will be alive to see what THAT is like. When I come across those moments, I feel empty in the pit of my stomach and have to put the book down for a moment. Everything we do as humans suddenly seems hollow and pointless (harkening back to that brilliant 'Pale Blue Dot' photograph taken by Voyager 1 at the behest of Carl Sagan).

It stuns and impresses me that today's astrophysicists, in spite of all the despair, have the wherewithall to keep trying to figure everything out anyway.

But I digress. Neil Degrasse Tyson is a fun and enthusiastic guy, a smart guy, and a down-to-earth guy, and this essay collection captures all of that. He really is the perfect modern day vessle to carry on what Carl Sagan started thirty years ago.
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