Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What we're reading: 14 Billion Years in a Nutshell

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
by Neil deGrasse Tyson

We have attempted to answer the question in various guises and with imaginative constructions throughout human history: The nature of the cosmos and our place in it remains our most enduring and fundamental question. So a contemporary understanding of what we have come to know about the origins and makeup of the universe--through both the discovery and operation of fundamental physical laws and through experimental validation--would seem to be, if anything is, essential reading. This book is an attempt to make lay readers conversant with the basic outlines of that knowledge without resource to complicated physics or mathematical equations.

On this level, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry succeeds, although the workings of the cosmos described here are in some respects so conceptually astonishing that you may find yourself wondering if what you think you got, you only understood on a tertiary level, that it hasn't really sunk in when it comes to your deeper understanding. Perhaps, too, you will be left with the feeling that you want to know more, that this is not a subject that people, however hurried, ought to give only cursory attention. Understanding the ideas that structure our modern paradigm of how the universe functions deserves maybe a little more of our time. Maybe it’s something we ought to slow down for. The author, doubtless, would not disagree,  He's designed this book in a way that whets your appetite to increase your knowledge.

View of the Milky Way taken from Mangaia in the Cook Islands by Tunc Tezel
A theoretical representation of
what the supernova SN 200664
might have looked like
Tyson explains the Big Bang and the origins of the universe (this is the most mind-blowing part), and he touches on all the major forces and components in the universe: dark matter, relativity, gravity, the nature and forms of light and energy in the universe, stars, planets, nebulae, pulsars, quasars, supernovas, and the various methods and tools we have developed to measure and understand these phenomena. He takes us to the edges of what we know or might reasonably surmise, and leaves us hanging there.

James Ferguson explained in 1757 (in Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Issac Newton’s Principles) why he viewed astronomy as the most “sublime” science, "...our faculties are enlarged with the grandeur of the ideas it conveys, our minds exalted above their low contracted prejudices.” It is an exercise, an enlargement in mind and spirit that Tyson argues we seek because it is endemic to our nature, it is defining. He argues that it is also a state of mind that is critical if we are to be able to deal successfully with our problems here on Earth. And yet things of wonder, by their nature, can leave us feeling powerless and small, especially when the wonder involves large things.  It can be existentially terrifying. But our future depends on us feeling deeply both the wonder and the terror of the cosmos. 

An X- ray image of a pulsar in the crab nebula taken by
the Chandra X- Ray observatory

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