Death By Black Hole Essay

Yes, yes, I know … Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson did not just come out, and it is not part of any current news story, so I’m not supposed to mention it in a blog post, because blog posts are only about things that happened during the last forty-five minutes or so. But what did happen in the last few minutes is that I finished reading it, and I’m recommending it to you.

It is said that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a modern day Carl Sagan … an astronomer who is superb at communicating science to the masses. That is sort of true but not exactly. Sagan and Tyson actually practice in different subfields of astronomy (rather pedantic of me to point out) and Tyson’s style is different. Aside from being a bit edgier, I find Tyson to be more like Asimov in his discussion of stuff about the universe. I’m reminded, when reading Death by Black Hole, of the Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Universe. Which, I admit, I read when it came out, so it has been a few years…

Death by Black Hole is a fairly comprehensive review of the main issues in modern astrophysics. In particular, Tyson focuses on how we know things, and how the how part sometimes interferes with, or at least makes more difficult, the dissemination of that knowledge. He points out, for instance, that to explain the details of one of the most interesting fairly recent finds in astro-science … the nature and composition of interstellar gas clouds … one needs to explain spectroscopy. Explaining spectroscopy, or any other fairly technical methodology, is often a deal-killer when it comes to getting people excited about something. I had this problem the other night when I had to explain to a bunch of people how optically stimulated luminescence worked in order to say something interesting about the recent pre-Clovis archaeological find in Texas. Fortunately, I was able to relate the esoteric dating technique to baseball and glow-in-the-dark plastic Virgin Marys, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Death (the book) is a collection of previously written essays edited slightly to account for natural redundancies and cross references.

The best part about the book is simply Neil deGrasse Tyson’s approach to explaining things that can be hard to explain. He also interjects the extra enthusiasm one gets when an author is speaking about pet peeves, about things like how the sun is depicted in art and how certain science is depicted in certain movies. The book is NOT about death by black holes. That is only one of the many topics covered. There are, it turns out, a whole bunch of other ways to die. He covers all the important ones.

If you haven’t read it, then read it. The Kindle edition is less than 9 bucks.

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Death by Black Hole

Jun 10 2008 05:16 AM | mcoren in General Interest Books

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Death By Black Hole (And Other Cosmic Quandaries)
By Neil deGrasse Tyson
Published by W. W. Norton & Co, 2007
Available in both hardcover and softcover editions

Review by Michael Coren

I've enjoyed Neil deGrasse Tyson's writings ever since I received a copy of the book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (which he cowrote with Donald Goldsmith) for my birthday two years ago. Dr. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Far from being merely an administrator, however, he is an experienced astrophysicist who has served on multiple Presidential Commissions concerning space policy, and has written several books and either hosted or been featured in a number of astronomy-related television programs, among his numerous other credentials.

Death By Black Hole is a collection of 42 essays that were originally written for Natural History magazine between 1995 and 2005. The essays are grouped together into sections with common themes, and cover a broad range of topics, one of which, as the title of the book suggests, is what would happen to you, in detail, if you fell into a black hole. Here are just a few of the many other topics covered in the book:
  • How much you can learn by simply observing the shadow cast by a stick standing in the ground over the course of a year.

  • The incredible, million-year long journey of a photon of light from its generation in the Sun's core to its final escape at the photosphere.

  • Brief but fascinating histories of the discoveries of the outer planets and the asteroids, which are actually as much about the personalities involved as they are about the events and science.

  • The importance of constants in nature, including the histories of efforts to determine the values of pi and the speed of light.

  • How astrophysicists use each of the primary "windows" in the electromagnetic spectrum to make observations and garner information, starting with radio waves and working through visible, infrared and ultraviolet, and up through x-rays, microwaves, and gamma rays.

  • The many extreme conditions where life has been found to thrive on Earth, and why liquid water may exist in large quantities outside the traditional "habitable zone" near the sun that the Earth currently occupies.

  • How quasars produce so much power from such an apparently small volume, and why they only seem to appear in the distant, early universe.

  • The many ways in which the universe can kill you, including chaotic planetary orbits, global climate change brought about by asteroid impacts, the Sun's eventual evolution into a red giant, a passing star stripping the Earth away from the Sun, and, as advertised, your unfortunate fall into a black hole.

  • Perceptions and representations of science and scientific topics in our everyday culture, including fear of negative numbers, some of the many false statements that people accept as "common knowledge" even though they could easily verify their inaccuracy for themselves (but they don't), and a number of Hollywood portrayals that go beyond just "artistic license" and clear into the realm of scientific ignorance.

  • The uneasy and often contentious relationship between science and religion, and the number of American scientists who identify themselves as religious.

This book is more than just a series of explanations of current astronomical theories and research tools, however. Dr. Tyson injects a great deal of historical perspective as well as his own personality and humor throughout the narrative, which is what really makes the difference between text that would otherwise be just informative and a book that is engaging and entertaining to read. For example, when discussing how astronomers use the different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, he writes, "Superman, with his x-ray vision, has no special advantage over modern-day scientists. Yes, he is a bit stronger than your average astrophysicist, but astrophysicists can now 'see' into every major part of the electromagnetic spectrum." When analyzing the prospects of life elsewhere in the universe, he provides a hilarious critique of a few select Hollywood movie aliens as only an astrophysicist could, at one point deadpanning, "Now those were some dumb aliens."

Elsewhere in the book, he reveals how he himself unexpectedly ran afoul of the International Dark Sky Association--an organization whose mission he clearly supports--when the American Museum's new Rose Center for Earth and Space Science opened. At issue were some low-wattage, but nevertheless upward facing exterior light fixtures. As a final example, when talking about the many stone-age observatories found throughout the ancient world (of which Stonehenge is one preeminent example), he laments, "Perhaps these ancient observatories perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what's going on in the sky."

If you are a regular reader of the feature articles in Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazine, you will likely already be familiar with many of the astrophysical concepts discussed in the book, so this book will bring together and provide additional perspectives on many ideas that you have seen before. You will likely also be comfortable with the level of the writing. While some of the material draws on basic concepts from high school physics and chemistry, don't worry about being in over your head if you're a little rusty. Again, this is not a textbook, and Dr. Tyson's explanations are clear and concise.

In summary, this is a highly informative, entertaining, and readable book, and I enthusiastically recommend it for every amateur astronomer's summer reading list.

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