Neil de Grasse Tyson and friends say 'Welcome to the Universe'!

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Welcome to the Universe
An Astrophysical Tour

By Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott
Princeton University Press.
472 pp. $39.95

 

Reviewed by Peter Lewis

 

Those of you with a sturdy grasp of the way, shape, and means of the universe - the entire celestial cosmos - may leave the room. The rest of you, please be seated. This class, as encapsulated in Welcome to the Universe, is going to turn your head around, because, frankly, what you think you know about the universe is probably wrong.

This type of course was once known as "poet's science," designed to allow flaccid-brained liberal arts students to pass their science requirements. The book here is a fine example of what is still known as "popular science": at its best, the commingling of lapidary writing and bell-clear, hard science. Sound good? It is.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott were asked to teach a class on the universe to nonscience majors at Princeton. In this collection-cum-text, each of the authors tackles chapters suitable to their expertise. Let it be said, simply, that the three gentlemen are top-shelf physicists and artful exegetes, inviting and enthusiastic, as when Tyson exclaims, "Kepler's third law was brilliant, just brilliant." For a physicist, this is known as being "unbridled."

Tyson goes on:

I want to introduce you to the size and scale of the cosmos, which is bigger than you think. It's hotter than you think. It is denser than you think. It's more rarefied than you think. Everything you think about the universe is less exotic than it actually is.

 

He may be overstating it a bit, unless you have been living under a rock and missed every image beamed home from the Hubble Space Telescope. But to be wowed by an image and not really have the faintest glimmer of what it signifies is to miss half the exoticism.

The authors' tone aims to relax the anxiety many of us feel when faced with equations such as:

[GMSun/(1 AU)2 ]/[GMEarth/rEarth2 ].

Yes, incredibly, you will be able to follow this equation, even if you have to move your lips. But there is also very little of this math, and only when it's critical to understanding.

What the authors do well is make the cosmos alive and hugely populated. There are some of the usual characters: red giants, white dwarfs, supernovas, the blues (as exquisite as Nabokov's butterflies), and the all-devouring black holes.

An extensive section on the birth and death of stars brings these evolutionary moments into focus, revealing some starling new features. Black holes, it turns out, aren't the Great Annihilation:

A particle can be created in a white hole singularity at the bottom and have its worldline come out into our universe. If a particle can fall into a black hole, it can come out of a white hole.

(A white hole is time-reversed version of a black hole, not to be confused with a wormhole, which connects different universes. Oh, yes.)

Welcome to the Universe deserves numerous curtain calls for allowing the cosmos to embrace our existential thinking like a great Whitmanesque hug. The vastness out there is both quotidian - it is mostly dust, like under your bed - but with singularities (singularity: the wildly distorted final state of matter before falling into a black hole, but used by me to mean peculiarities) that are as disturbing as Albert Einstein's favorite entanglement: spooky action at a distance.

Peter Lewis is an editor at the Geographical Review.