Saturday, December 24, 2011

Forged in the Stars: Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries)

I first stumbled upon Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious love of space when I saw him interviewed on that most intellectual of science television programmes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tyson spoke with the articulation and intelligence born of years as a professional astrophysicist, yet with the youthful enthusiasm of a twelve year-old who dreams of exploring the galaxy. Whether working as an undergraduate lecturer or as director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson has committed himself to conveying a wonder and understanding of astronomy to the lay-person. Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries) succeeds in this goal, depicting the vast and often daunting study of astronomy as a subject of fascinating awe, and as something we all can – and should – attempt to discover ourselves.

Published in 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company, Death by Black Hole assembles several dozen of Tyson’s essays from Natural History magazine, spanning from 1995 to 2005. These range from a discussion of how technology helps humans explore the universe, to how science informs and interweaves with human culture. As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Death by Black Hole takes an inquisitive approach to science, with each essay built around a unique space-based problem. While each chapter can stand alone, the book also manages to maintain enough intrigue and momentum to compel me to read several chapters at a stretch. Though an interest in astronomy certainly helps, the book makes a great introduction to the topic, owing its success to Tyson’s humorous and entertaining approach.

Rather than describing astronomy in the dusty, antiquated language of its history, Tyson brings a fresh, personable tone to his subject matter. As an arts student who lacks a firm grip on the more mathematical aspects of science, I had no difficulty following the book’s otherworldly depictions and explanations. His accessible writing explains challenging ideas simply, giving the reader a sense of humbling perspective rather than embarrassing ignorance.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson not only makes a discussion of space beautiful and interesting, but relevant. Death by Black Hole succeeds in grounding its lofty subject matter, while elevating the human desire to look skyward to more than simply inverted navel-gazing. Several chapters read like a good historical epic, recounting the origins of this often controversial science with intrigue and ever-present curiosity. Understanding astronomy, argues Tyson, underlies humanity’s understanding of ourselves: our origins, our history, and even our possible destruction.

One section, When the Universe turns Bad, describes “all the ways the cosmos wants to kill us”. Here we find the titular ‘death by black hole’, with supermassive singularities stretching out any object that gets too close, an unsettling process known as spaghettification. Yum. While this makes for a nice thought experiment, other topics deal with more practical concerns for the everyday reader. One chapter describes the possibility – the inevitability – of an Armageddon-like event, with large asteroids getting uncomfortably close to Earth as soon as seven years from now. Though evoking the seriousness of scenarios, Tyson applies humour and lightness to his writing, realistic yet optimistic about goals like space exploration and improved science education.

Because the science of astronomy has progressed since the book’s printing, it does omit more recent developments (including the surprisingly controversial relabeling of dwarf planet Pluto, to which Tyson devoted his latest book, The Pluto Files). As with most science books, Death by Black Hole runs the risk of having contents that require revision and the need for a future edition. Yet as a scientist, Tyson welcomes this idea, and leaves much of the book as open ended questions he hopes progress will one day satisfy. He will likely address much of the same territory in his upcoming remake of the classic Carl Sagan television series Cosmos.

Death by Black Hole ends by challenging readers to never satisfy themselves with ignorance, and to expand the frontiers of human exploration and understanding. So, while some of its minor details may need tweaking over time, the passionate and mind-expanding ideas at its core make it a collection of quandaries well worth exploring.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently interning in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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