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Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com


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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 71: The Pluto Files

The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin’.

No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed “demotion” of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to “Dwarf Planet,” rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.

To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not – and I’m pretty sure he didn’t – he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.

That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don’t really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it’s a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What’s more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, “Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria,” they’d probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn’t following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.

This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.

One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn’t know the history of Pluto’s discovery, we still have a certain love for it.

Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there’s something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.

And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites – even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure – the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.

What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he’s our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.

So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don’t really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck – stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposia were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.

In case you’re wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that’s how it is.

Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands – and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby – some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.

The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It’s also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn’t really have anything in common with.

Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn’t care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they’re right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it’s important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we’re talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge – had we not made such progress, Pluto’s classification would never have been in doubt.

The “demotion” of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet – we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.

“It’s always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, “What have you done?!”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files

Neil deGrasse Tyson at Wikipedia
The Pluto Files at Wikipedia
Pluto on Wikipedia
The Pluto Files on Amazon.com
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s homepage

Laurel’s Pluto Blog

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Filed under astronomy, history, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pluto, science

Review 70: Bad Astronomy

Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it’s our distance from the sun – sorry, you’re wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it’s that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon’s tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it’s the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!

All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you’re reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.

Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn’t caught up with that yet.

And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.

Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.

While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox – and only on the Vernal Equinox – you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it’s an experiment that’s carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?

Fortunately, that’s within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they’ve finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You’re doing science!!

Or perhaps you’ve heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there’s an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you’ll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it’ll still be washed out and you won’t see any stars at all.

One more good one that a lot of people believe – the moon is larger in the sky when it’s near the horizon than when it’s at its zenith. Again, this is something that’s very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm’s length – a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon’s apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.

Of course, there’s a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there’s no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that’s because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you’re likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you’re really sharp-eyed and lucky.

The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It’s probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon – the effect works at sea, too. It’s probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.

Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.

There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren’t very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.

Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can’t rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn’t until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.

Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn’t behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn’t make it true.

He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films – sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields – these things may be dramatically interesting, but they’re all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi (“Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!”), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we’re observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He’s excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.

If you’re an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won’t learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you’ll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you’ll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.

“If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'”
– Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
The Bad Astronomy Blog

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Filed under astronomy, education, media, nonfiction, Phil Plait, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 34: Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I have often lamented the passing of my favorite popular scientist, Carl Sagan, by talking about how necessary he is right now. We are at a point in our history where scientific illiteracy is growing, where people are not only ignorant of how science works, but are proud of their ignorance. What we need is someone who can reach the majority of Americans who are not especially scientifically literate – the people whose automatic reaction to science is to think, “That’s just too hard for me to deal with.”

Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He’s appeared on countless television programs, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, to talk about the current state of astronomy and astrophysics. He’s an engaging and entertaining man, who claims that Pluto was “asking for” its demotion, who seems to take perverse pleasure in describing all the terrible ways the universe could take us out. He knows that we’re in a precarious position, here on Earth, and he revels in it rather than worrying about it.

Whereas Sagan seemed to come from the point of view that the universe was a place of infinite wonder, where one could look anywhere and be awed and humbled, Tyson’s attitude is more of the universe as an infinite theme park – a place where you could see your electrons stripped from your body, watch gas clouds larger than our own solar system collide and ignite, or see planets crumple under cosmic bombardment. Tyson’s universe is an adventure, as big as it gets.

This book is a collection of essays that Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine over a ten year period, on a variety of subjects related to science and scientific inquiry. In many ways, it’s similar to every other pop science book out there – and there are so very many of them – but it is his perspective and his voice that makes this one stand out from the crowd.

He’s grouped his essays into seven sections, on topics ranging from the difficulties inherent in actually knowing anything about the universe to the understanding of how life went from little mindless bacteria to we clever Homo sapiens to the intersection of science and religion. Most of it is accessible to the average non-scientist, though he does get a little technical at points. But he understands that, and he tries to compensate for for the fact that, by and large, the public is intimidated by “real science.” In the essay entitled, “Over the Rainbow,” he discusses this particular challenge by using spectroscopy as an example.

In spectroscopy, astrophysicists look at the spectrum of a star, hunting for telltale dark lines that indicate the physical properties of stars. It’s like looking at a rainbow with bits blackened out of it, as though the CIA had somehow gotten to it first. Those black lines contain all the vital information about the star’s composition and, more importantly, speed. Very little can be gleaned by just looking at the star, as it turns out. He notes five levels of abstraction, starting from the star itself:

Level 0: A star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines in the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.

These descending levels of abstraction can apply to any branch of science, not just astrophysics. The challenge, as he notes, is getting people past level 1, which is easy to understand but is not the level at which true science is done. It is up to educators, he says, to help make people comfortable with looking at real science, and not just pretty pictures.

Indeed, there are several sections of the book dedicated to the intersection between science and the public. He talks about how easily we are baffled by numbers (why are below-ground floors not labeled -1, -2, -3 etc?) and how casually we disregard actual scientific facts. He brings up some of his favorite moments in bad movie science, and how he single-handedly saved Titanic from ignominious astronomical shame. At least, on its DVD re-release. He addresses the historically shifting centers of science in human history, how things like NASA are truly a global endeavor. Without the discoveries made through history by people all over the planet – from England to Greece to Baghdad – there would be no NASA, nor any science that we recognize. And to assume that the United States will always be the center of scientific discovery is to willfully ignore history.

And, of course, there’s a section dedicated to the conflict between religion and science, a never-ending battle that has existed since science began. Tyson believes that there can be no common ground between the two – science relies on facts, religion relies on faith. This is not to say that one is better than the other, any more than, say, a hammer is better than a screwdriver. It’s just that you can’t use them interchangeably. And he points out that becoming a scientist doesn’t require you to give up your faith. There have been, and still are, countless scientists who are believers in the Divine. It’s just that most of them know enough not to confuse science and spirituality.

The place where they meet, historically, is on the boundary of ignorance. Isaac Newton, having figured out gravity, couldn’t quite work out how you could have a multiple-body system like our solar system without the whole thing falling into chaos. His conclusion – God must, from time to time, step in to keep things on the right path. Having done that, Newton went on to do other things, and it wasn’t until the next century that Pierre-Simon laPlace decided that he wasn’t satisfied with Newton’s “Insert God Here” argument, and did the math for himself.

In other words, God is a marker on the boundaries of ignorance, and the best of us are tempted to let Him answer the questions that we can’t. To do so, however, impedes the path of science and stops progress in its tracks. What if Newton had said, “No, I’m going to figure this damn thing out.” Would we be a century ahead in our technology by now? Maybe, maybe not. What if the Catholic Church had listened when Galileo said, “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Might more progress have been made? So many great thinkers have come up to the boundaries of their knowledge and, humbled by what they do not know, chose to allow The God of the Gaps reassure them.

But that’s the whole point of science, and it’s what this book, and others like it, are trying to instill in people. The unknown is not horrible, it is not terrifying, and it’s not a place to just stop. It’s a place of awe and wonder and bafflement and opportunity. To say, “I don’t understand it – it must be God” is short-changing ourselves and our heirs out of even greater knowledge of the universe.

“Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless something baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Amazon.com
The Hayden Planetarium

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson, nonfiction, science

Review 24: Death from the Skies!

Death From The Skies! by Phil Plait

I’ve always found the end of the world fascinating. So many cultures have put together their own ideas of how the world will end, from the Norse Ragnarök to the Christian apocalypse to the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. We live in a world that was, for a long time, unpredictable to us and on many occasions seemed to be outwardly hostile. Our ancestors faced floods and earthquakes and disease, with no idea of where these things came from, why they happened or how to stop them. And so they made myths and stories to explain the dangerous world in which they lived. From that, they extrapolated – if the world is this dangerous now, how dangerous could it be if it really tried? And so came our myths of a world that not only succeeds in hurting us, but in wiping us out altogether.

Even in the modern age we have our myths. Books, television, and movies all use the end of the world (or end of a world) to tell stories – usually about the resilience of mankind and our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and rebuild human society, hopefully for the better. As good as this is for fiction, there are two problems when we try to apply these myths and stories to the real world: the world will end, one way or another, and no amount of heroics, cleverness or pluck will save us. Not in the long term, anyway.

Science has accomplished what religion and fiction could not – it has seen the future and can make fairly accurate prophecies about how this world, and our civilization upon it, will die. Renowned astronomer Phil Plait is your prophet for this trip into all the ways the world will end….

In this book, Plait looks at nine possibilities for the end of the world as we know it. In order, they are:

Death by Impact
Death from the Sun
Death by Supernova
Death by Gamma Ray Burst
Death by Black Hole
Death by Aliens
Death of the Sun
Death by Galactic Collision
Death of the Universe

In each chapter, Plait outlines the ways in which that specific event could injure or kill us, with as much science as he can comfortably put in. He explains, for example, why we can’t just send Bruce Willis up to hit an incoming meteor with a nuke (it probably won’t work) and why any black holes produced by the LHC won’t do us any harm. He looks at how a supernova happens, what it is about a black hole that turns it into one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, and tries – very, very hard – to make the reader understand exactly how long “forever” is. (Hint: it’s a lot longer than you think. Longer than that, even. Nope, keep going….)

Each chapter outlines the processes by which we could experience the destruction of our civilization or, in a few cases, the planet itself. He looks at the scientific foundations of these events, explaining in detail what it is about the sun, for example, that makes it a cauldron of chaos and torment, or why we really, really don’t want to get even a smallish black hole anywhere near the planet. And I have to say, of all the unlikely ways we could be toasted, gamma ray bursts are my favorite – a deadly beam of energy from thousands of light-years away, cooking the planet all the way down through the crust and utterly devastating the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill off anyone who was lucky enough to be on the other side of the world. I mean, wow. And there’d be no warning, either. By the time we knew what was happening, it’d be too late. So that chapter (with a line paying homage to Douglas Adams, even) is just mind-boggling.

Probably my favorite chapter, though, is the one about supernovas, mainly because his careful, step-by-step description of exactly how a supernova occurs made me think, “What I wouldn’t give to see that in person,” disregarding the fact that a) the best parts would happen way too fast for me to observe and b) it would vaporize me. Still, it’s a beautiful and terrifying chain reaction, which Plait describes in fantastic detail. The other chapter that evoked the same reaction was the one on the end of the universe. Despite timelines for which the word “vast” is terribly inadequate, Plait tells us what science knows about how the universe will end – the ever-increasing expansion of spacetime, the eventual death of the stars, evaporation of galaxies, the reign of the black holes and the slow, careful deaths which even they face. It all ends in darkness, all matter gone into a few stubborn subatomic particles and the eventual collapse of the very fabric of space and time.

And as bleak and miserable is the future looks, I still thought, “I really want to see that.” So if I can figure out how to live one googol years (that’d be a one with one hundred zeros after it [1]) and not have my very atoms decay into nothingness, then I’ll be able to… um… be really, really bored, probably. Since after that, there’s absolutely – literally – nothing to do. Until the universe experiences vacuum collapse, or a brane collision, possibly hitting the reset button on the cosmos and we get to do it all over again….

Most of what’s in the book isn’t new to me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Cosmos, and I follow countless science TV shows, podcasts and blogs (including Plait’s own Bad Astronomy blog, which is well worth keeping up with, as well as his regular appearances on SETI’s podcast, Are We Alone? and occasional guest appearances on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – both of which make for excellent listening). For people new to astronomy, though, this will be a rather dense learning experience – and reading it will be time well spent.

In addition to its user-friendly style, I really like the way it’s arranged – from small-scale (relatively) to large, with “Things that are absolutely certain to happen” at the beginning and end, and with “things that probably won’t happen” in the middle. And my favorite aspect of this book is that each chapter begins with a short vignette describing that particular end of the world, from the perspective of someone watching it happen. It’s not something you often see in books of this nature, and I’m really glad that Plait decided to put it in there. It makes it a little less academic and abstract and more real.

For all its death and destruction, the book isn’t really a downer. For one thing, while things like asteroid impacts and the death of the sun are inevitable, they don’t have to be fatal, and Plait describes a few ways in which – in theory – we (or our distant, distant descendants) might be able to avert or at least mitigate these catastrophes. It’s not easy, of course, but saving the world never is.

It’s mainly a marvel at the forces that surround us in the universe. It’s easy to forget, looking up at the sky from our brief, limited scale, that the universe isn’t just some pretty lights drifting about in empty blackness. Things are exploding and dying, burning and freezing, moving quickly and slowly – the cosmos is replete with activity and danger. Most of the universe isn’t just uninhabitable, it’s actively hostile to life as we know it. And yet, without the black holes, the supernovas and the galactic collisions, without massive meteor impacts and breakaway comets, solar flares and deadly radiation – without all that, life probably wouldn’t exist at all. So read this book, and take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be here at all, all things considered….

“They say that even the brightest star won’t shine forever. But in fact, the brightest star would live the shortest amount of time. Feel free to extract whatever life lesson you want from that.”
– Phil Plait, Death from the Skies!

[1] 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy blog
Death from the Skies! on Wikipedia
Death from the Skies! on Amazon.com

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