Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book un­packs astro­physics with a laugh

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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

Photo: Face­book/ In­na­iah Narisetti

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