Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

First published:- 2006


Star rating:-



Neil deGrasse Tyson is a force to reckon with. 


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But he is not Carl Sagan. 

While Sagan must have smiled down kindly on your meek acknowledgement of ignorance regarding, say, black holes, Tyson will have most probably given you the stink eye or aimed a sarcastic jibe at your apathy, before proceeding to explain why black holes still remain a topic of much speculation in the community of astrophysicists worldwide.

Tyson does not pull any punches in this collection of essays while slamming the news media, who more often than not, come off as ill-informed hacks doing a shoddy job of reporting facts in the field of space science, forever (stupidly) claiming how scientists are baffled by so-and-so new developments. 
"Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless one thing or another baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery."

Or snidely commenting on the Hollywood exercise of producing multi-million dollar sci-fi films which badly butcher the scientific aspects of such ventures by inserting factually incorrect observations in scenes and dialogues. (there's a brilliant anecdote concerning James Cameron's 'Titanic' in this regard and the Contact film gets an honorable mention for its adherence to proper science if one overlooks a minor gaffe)
"I am glad that, in the end, the humans win. We conquer the 'Independence Day' aliens by having a Macintosh laptop computer upload a software virus to the mothership. [] The entire defense system for the alien mothership must have been powered by the same release of Apple Computer's system software as the laptop computer that delivered the virus."

Or criticizing the mad dash for extending the frontiers of space science during the Cold war years, when the spirit of scientific inquiry was sidelined in favor of a dangerous game of political one-upmanship, a kind of puerile assertion of 'our scientists are better than yours'. Or openly chastising revered names from ancient Greece like Aristotle whose inaccurate assumptions about the unchanging nature of stars and the geocentric universe helped the Catholic Church in propagating falsities for centuries with impunity. (He doesn't even spare Newton forGod's Higgs Boson's sake who, unable to satisfactorily explain the ordered behavior of the solar system despite the many often conflicting gravitational forces at work, had cited God's need to step in to correct things in his famed 'Principia')

While Sagan may have adopted a more benign, less aggressive tone in course of addressing issues of religious dogma being at loggerheads with scientific reasoning and aversion to science and mathematics among the general populace, NDT takes the approach of pure, unadulterated logic and demolishes one popular misconception after another (for e.g.:-the North Star is not the most brilliant star in the night sky or how everything that goes up doesn't come down) with a brute force which I am certain will not sit well with some sensitive readers who are easily offended. 

Being born in a country whose space research organization head performs pujas and makes ritualistic offerings prior to launching a 'Mission to Mars', I can't say I fault NDT's acerbic tone or his distaste for those who are hell-bent on unifying science and religion without even realizing that finding common ground between both is akin to attempting to exceed the velocity of light.

But if NDT lacks Sagan's sage-like demeanour and his rich, authorial voice (Sagan's prose is much more refined no doubt), his excellent sense of humor almost compensates for their absence - 
"The good thing about the laws of physics is that they require no law enforcement agencies to maintain them, although I once owned a nerdy T-shirt that loudly proclaimed, "OBEY GRAVITY."
"The only people who still call hurricanes 'acts of God' are the people who write insurance forms."
(and Michele Bachmann, just saying)

And occasionally there's a sop thrown in for the literary-minded (particularly the postmodernist fiction lover) - 
"The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who in 1964 proposed the existence of quarks, and who at the time thought the quark family had only three members, drew the name from a characteristically elusive line in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake:'Three quarks for Muster Mark!'"

The more frivolous aspects of the essays aside, among the astrophysics-related topics NDT centers his discussions around, the ones which were relatively new to me are the concepts of hypernovae, gamma ray bursts, dark matter and dark energy, the uncertainty surrounding the string theory and the probability of the annihilation of Earth through ill-fated, cosmic encounters with errant asteroids, the unavoidable, impending collision of our galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy which is the nearest one heading towards us at a speed of more than 100 kilometers per second.

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The Andromeda Galaxy

Since this is a collection of 42 essays which were published in the 'Natural History' magazine, some repetition of concepts and names creeps in occasionally but that merely helps you refresh memories of what you just read a few pages back, not exactly a shortcoming I am keen to quibble over. 

4 stars, because Tyson seems a little too bitter about artists who exercise 'artistic license' to distort certain astronomical facts in their paintings. Besides I am certain there is a lot of 5-star-worthy goodness in the rest of NDT's works left for me to discover in the future.




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