Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

First a disclaimer: I do not understand much of the intricacies of physics, let alone any algebra or math higher than the most basic of mathematics.  But for most of m reading life I have been fascinated with outer space, which is increased every time new pictures from Hubble appear or photos from the far reaches of our tiny blue dot.  My first look at Carl Sagan and his series, Cosmos, is the centerpiece of what I do know.  Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson became a source of amazement and wonder.  Neil has written a marvelous book titled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  I actually read this 208 page book in a single sitting. 

Tyson is a most worthy successor to Carl Sagan.  He explains difficult aspects of physics accessible to all readers who share my fascination.  He begins by breaking down the steps of the Big Bang, beginning with one trillionth of a second after the event up to 1,000,000,000 years ago.  My favorite chapter is “Between the Galaxies.”  He writes, “In the grand tally of cosmic constituents, galaxies are what typically counted.  The latest estimates show that the observable universe may contain a hundred billion of them.  Bright and beautiful and packed with stars, galaxies decorate the dark voids of space like cities across a country at night.  But just how voidy is the void of space?  (How empty is the countryside between cities?)  Just because galaxies are in your face, and just because they would have us believe that nothing else matters, the universe may nonetheless contain hard-to-detect things between the galaxies.  Maybe those things are more interesting, or more important to the evolution of the universe, than the galaxies themselves” (62).  This takes me back to the first time I peered through a department store telescope a looked at a blurry smudge that is the Andromeda Galaxy.

I flirted for a while with considering a degree in astronomy or physics, but the reality of my math skills slammed on the breaks.  I have a weird inability to add, divide, multiply, or subtract more than two figures at a time.  A hand calculator is now my necessary companion.

A hot topic in physics today is the mysterious “dark matter.”  It appears as though the largest amount of matter in our universe is not made up of planets, asteroids, and stars, but rather it is composed of this invisible powerful force.  Tyson says it took geniuses like Newton and Einstein to get us to where we are today.  He wonders who will be the next Sheldon Cooper.  Tyson writes, “We don’t know who’s next in the genius sequence, but we’ve now been waiting nearly a century for somebody to tell us why the bulk of all the gravitational force that we’ve measured is in the universe—about eight-five percent of it—arises from substances that do not otherwise interact with ‘our’ matter or energy.  Or maybe the excess gravity doesn’t come from matter and energy at all, but emanates from some other conceptual thing.  In any case, we are essential clueless.  We find ourselves no closer to an answer today than we were when this ‘missing mass’ problem was first fully analyzed in 1937 by the Swiss-American astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky.  He taught at the California Institute of Technology for more than forty years, combining his far ranging insights into the cosmos with a colorful means of expression and an impressive ability to antagonize his colleagues” (77).  I enjoy the popular comedy, ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ immensely, and I wonder if a real Sheldon Cooper might be in school somewhere, and that I will hear of his discoveries in my lifetime.

If you have an interest in all things scientific—as I do—Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will have you gazing up into the night sky and wondering.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/21/17

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