Tag Archives: astrophysics

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.

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

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“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!
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[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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Filed under apocalypse, astronomy, astrophysics, death, nonfiction, Phil Plait, science, survival, technology