Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book unpacks astrophysics with a laugh
HUMAN brains aren’t any bigger than they were a few centuries ago, but the amount and complexity of knowledge now available – and often necessary – for them to absorb has grown exponentially. How to get people engaged with modern science? Here’s one idea:
Michael A Strauss, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University, is trying to explain how the universe is expanding and how we can use the rate of expansion to calculate how many years it’s been since the big bang. (About 13.8 billion.) On one page of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour, he introduces this equation, which he calls “simple”: t=d/v=d/(H0d)=1/H0 Got that? On the next page, he reproduces a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which Calvin wants to rename the big bang the “Horrendous Space Kablooie.”
Okay! And on the next page, he explains, “The Big Bang was not an explosion … It is not like a bomb. Because the universe has no edge, there is no empty space ‘out there’ for it to expand into. It is the space itself that is expanding.” In other words, the narrative veers from physics to humour to text that’s pretty easy to comprehend.
That’s a style employed by all three astrophysicists who collaborated on this book: Strauss and J Richard Gott, who is also a Princeton professor, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, author and television personality. Their laudable goal is communicating vast, cosmic ideas in ways that are accessible without being simplistic.
Gott, writing about Einstein’s general theory of relativity, compares the curvature of space-time to that of the Earth – and illustrates it with photos of toy trucks moving across a classroom globe.
Tyson, in a chapter about searching for LAWKI (life as we know it) elsewhere in the galaxy, references not just Star Trek (of course) but also the stopwatch on 60 Minutes, a New Yorker cartoon involving dinosaurs and the Jodie Foster movie Contact.
The book is simultaneously daunting, at least for those of us who never quite got calculus, and surprisingly understandable. And it cheerfully keeps inviting us to at least try to catch on: After all, as Gott notes, “This is a funny universe, operating in surprising ways, but it seems to be the universe in which we live.” Washington Post