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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="267"]Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson[/caption]

I can honestly say there were not many facts in this book that were new to me. But then again, I am deeply into science and consider myself scientifically literate. Also, much of what went into this book also went into the show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which Doctor Tyson hosted. If you've watched that show, you know much, but not all, of what this book contains.

But this book isn't about science, at least not in the way most commonly assumed: a dissertation of facts and figures clinically delivered in monotonous bullet lists. That is not Doctor Tyson's style. Yes, he expounds on facts about the known universe, and hypothesizes on what we suspect but haven't quite proven. Still, that isn't the purpose of this book. Doctor Tyson uses these facts to illustrate for the reader the incredible benefits the human species enjoys because of science, and those who have pursued the answers to mankind's most perplexing questions. Who are we? Why do we exist? What is our place in this universe? How does it all work? He wants people to understand these are not unknowable answers. As self-aware intelligent creatures with an inborn curiosity unparalleled by any other species on this planet (that we know of ;-) ,) we have it within ourselves to answer all these questions - and do it with repeatable, verifiable experimentation that leaves no doubt what the truth is.

But knowing a fact and understanding an answer are two completely different things. I can know Doctor Albert Einstein proved the amount of energy that exists in a single atom is equivalent to its mass multiplied by 299,792,458 meters per second squared. That's the fact. But what does that fact mean to me personally? How does it affect my daily life? How have a benefited from it? To know that I must understand how Doctor Einstein's work has been put into use. Would it surprise you to know the Global Positioning System (GPS) in your smart phone relies on Doctor Einstein's equation to work? Seriously, those satellites orbit the Earth at a considerable velocity. And if you know how, you can reorganize Doctor Einstein's famous equation to describe the effect velocity has on time. Look at that equation spelled out above again. It ends in meters per second. We can mathematically isolate the time variable. When we fill in the other's, it'll give us a result in time units, and by comparing results from different initial conditions (in this case by varying velocity) we can see how velocity effects time. You'll find the faster you go, the slower time proceeds. We call this time dilation and Doctor Einstein expounded on it in his formulas of Special Relativity.

[caption id="attachment_3680" align="alignright" width="569"]GPS Relativistic Effects GPS Relativistic Effects[/caption]

Since GPS is an extremely precision oriented system, if it did not account for the tiny shifts in time the orbiting satellites experience, it could never tell you where on the face of this immense planet (relative to our terrestrial measurement systems) you are. And since Google is the great equalizer in all things knowledge, to the right is the answer of how much time dilation a GPS satellite undergoes while in orbit. Click on the picture to see the full results of the five second Google search I did to find the answer.

But here's the even more important message Doctor Tyson conveys in this book. Think about how the satellites came to be? Don't worry about the specifics, just consider the question in general. Think of all the questions we as a species had to answer to make GPS possible. It would have never happened without the entire space program. The entire space program relied on the invention of flight in its several varieties, and that in turn depended on the discovery of the mathematical principles underlying the effects of gravity which Sir Isaac Newton first described in his PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in 1687. Oh, and the science of Fluid Dynamics to which Sir Newton contributed a lot, but a whole lot of other people were involved with nailing down. Sir Newton's scientific work was  inspired by many other men and enabled by the likes of Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus. Their work in turn was inspired by others - and so on, and so forth. And that just deals with the getting into orbit sequence. There are many other sciences involved, like computers. Think of all the science necessary to invent the GPS we all take for granted today. It's awe-inspiring. And we did it. We humans. Many of us working together and over millennia. We did it with our minds, and our innate curiosity to know more.

That is one message Doctor Tyson conveys in this book. Science is the foundation of our existence. Regardless of what men like Sir Newton had to put in the titles of their books (philosophy is the word they used instead of truth, so as to not get themselves in trouble with religion, the power brokers of divine justice coming out of the Middle Ages - think inquisition,) these are truths of the universe, codified and replicable. You can take every one of Sir Newton's equations and prove them yourself. It's a bit more tricky when it comes to Doctor Einstein's equations, but ordinary people like you and I can do it. That is the nature of science, and that is what Doctor Tyson wants everyone to understand. We have all benefited from science in more ways than we are aware. Doctor Tyson makes you aware of the debt we owe to science. He would not use the word debt, but I would. Since the first man figured out how to create tools from rocks, and more importantly how to repeat the process and show others how to do it, we have owed our lives to science. Even if the debt is never collected, we do owe our continued existence to those whose curiosity lead us to better times.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="525"]The Crab Nebula The Crab Nebula[/caption]

I would be remiss if I didn't also point out there is something else Doctor Tyson wants his readers to understand. Something more sinister. He want's us to understand there are those who would hold us back. Who would see us live in an age of unenlightened ignorance rather than relinquish their unsubstantiated beliefs. Beliefs which science, on occasion, has shown to be, well... wrong. This is not the fault of scientists. Intelligent human beings should not have to deny a truth made self-evident through observation, testing and retesting. But there are those who will insist we do, and they harm us all in ways overt and subvert. As an example of this sort of harmful thinking, Doctor Tyson tells the story of Supernova 1054 (now the Crab Nebula.) Here is what he had to say about it in the book,

When scientifically investigating the natural world, the only thing worse than a blind believer is a seeing denier. In A.D. 1054, a star in the constellation Taurus abruptly increased in brightness by a factor of a million. The Chinese astronomers wrote about it. Middle Eastern astronomers wrote about it. Native Americans of what is now the southwestern United States made rock engravings of it. The star became bright enough to be plainly visible in the daytime for weeks, yet we have no record of anybody in all of Europe recording the event. (The bright new star in the sky was actually a supernova explosion that occurred in space some 7,000 years earlier but its light had only just reached Earth.) True, Europe was in the Dark Ages, so we cannot expect that acute data-taking skills were common, but cosmic events that were “allowed” to happen were routinely recorded. For example, 12 years later, in 1066, what ultimately became known as Halley’s comet was seen and duly depicted—complete with agape onlookers—in a section of the famous Bayeux tapestry, circa 1100. An exception indeed. The Bible says the stars don’t change. Aristotle said the stars don’t change. The Church, with its unmatched authority, declares the stars don’t change. The population then falls victim to a collective delusion that was stronger than its members’ own powers of observation.

This is but one example of the many Doctor Tyson has researched and presents to the reader so they can understand how such behavior adversely affects us all. True, not recording Supernova 1054 because the Church forbade it did not have much of a direct impact on the lives of those living in Europe at the time. However, the mindset that allows for such suppression of information can be deadly. That mindset 400 years later directly caused millions of deaths from Bubonic plague. It was the same mindset that associated cats with witches, agents of the devil, and the spread of Bubonic plague, which was obviously the work of the devil. With no other substantiation other than that, the Church determined cats must be involved with the spread of Bubonic plague. Therefore the cats had to go. All over Europe priests encouraged their followers to eradicate the one creature that might have helped bring an end to the real plague spreaders: flees from rats. How many people died because of this unsubstantiated belief? According to medieval historian Philip Daileader up to 200 million people died in Europe. That's 50% of the population of the time. Germ theory was not formulated and tested for another 600 years, but had the cats not been slaughtered perhaps the rats would not have bred out of control spreading the Black Death throughout Europe like wildfire through a parched forest.

Doctor Tyson wants his reader to understand there is a better way to think about the universe: analytically, fact based, derived from verifiable observations. This book is a 384 page exploration of how that sort of thinking happens, and how we have all benefited from the fact it happens. But since no review would be complete without looking at the cons of a book, there is one thing that really, really annoyed me by the end of the book. Doctor Tyson seems to be in love with the word indeed. He uses it 49 times in the course of the book, including the paragraph quoted above. That's once every 7.8367346938775510204081632653061 pages. Please Doctor Tyson, broaden your adverbial horizons and mix it up a little. Indeed is a nicely succinct, if somewhat archaic, adverb. Indeed, there are no other single words in the English language that convey the same meaning. But there are alternative phrases. Here are some suggestions Google gives: "as expected," "to be sure," "in fact," "in point of fact," "as a matter of fact," "in truth," "actually," "as it happens," "if truth be told," and "admittedly". If I had to listen to that single word one more time, indeed, I think I would have gone mad! Nevertheless, I give Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson a solid B+ as a book, and a wholehearted A+ as an attempt to help us understand what he feels helps us as a species, and what holds us back. If you're a die-hard denier, skip this book. It'll just make you feel dumb. Otherwise, give it a read. What have you got to lose other than ignorance?


  1. We posit that under this experiment x, y, z this will happen, thereby proving a. Oh. Look. s, h, t happened instead... Must be quantum!

    All facetiousness aside, I love the fact that we don't know everything and that the universe is still throwing us curve balls :)

  2. In science there is no such thing as a failed experiment. Either it does what you predicted and knowledge expands, or it doesn't do what you expected and knowledge expands. It's the only win-win every time system I know. :P

  3. Yep. I worked with a guy once whose thesis was based on no positive results whatsoever in trying to prove magnetism was affected by changed states in certain solids (iirc).

    On a defined range from science to science, there is only science :)

  4. Neil deGrasse Tyson must be a Teal'c fan IN DEED.


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