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Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Review by Paul Haggerty
W. W. Norton Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0393062244
Date: 22 January, 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Death by Black Hole is a collection of forty-two science essays by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Ranging the gamut from the structure of the human eye, to the structure of gravity binding together galactic clusters, Tyson explains the incredible in simple, but scientifically accurate prose.

Scientists are drawn to the field not because they want to know, but because they want to find out. And there is a subtle difference. Scientists are always baffled because the unknown is where all the fun is. Over millennia, philosophers, naturalists, and scientists have slowly but surely been proving each other wrong in a game whose point is not so much to get it right, but to get it right-er. This is the lure and frustration of science. It's a lure I've felt throughout my life. Every time I pick up a science book, all the facts I've known are now prefaced with "yes, but ..." So how does that make me feel? Excited to be able to be just a little more righter, if only for a short time. So come take a look at how our world and universe are currently understood to be put together, as described by one of the best science essayist of our time. Some facts will be familiar, some won't. And some might just prove that the professor who gave you a C- on that exam, didn't have all his facts straight either.

Death by Black Hole is divided into seven sections, but there are many essays that could rightfully be placed in several of them. The first, The Nature of Knowledge covers our senses, and how they're optimized for survival, not discovery. The human eye is great for detecting the subtle motion in the grass a hundred feet away that heralds the approach of the hungry tiger, but it's really rather pathetic when it comes to detecting small shifts in sound or light. That's because the latter won't kill you, and the former will. Evolution favors that which helps keep us un-eaten and fills our bellies rather than satisfies our curiosities, so science starts right off with bit of a disadvantage.

Of course, our senses don't just let us down in the details, they actively seek to deceive us. Our minds like to think they know how things work, and our senses actively take part in trying to shoehorn anything strange into the normal. But this is where science excels. Once you have a grip on your senses and taken into hand those neat inventions scientists have designed to patch over our little biological design limitations, the universe lies open before us, waiting to be understood. But of course, that's a problem in itself. The universe is huge, and our brains are small. No matter how carefully you draw a map, it will always be wrong unless it's at least the size of what you're mapping. Nature is filled with complexities and one of science's jobs is to figure out what's important, and what can be ignored. This is what theories are all about, taking in what data is important, discarding the rest, and coming up with an explanation that won't be proven wrong tomorrow.

The last essay in this section, "Stick-in-the-Mud Science", explains how, with just a stick, you can measure (roughly), time, seasons, compass directions, the diameter of the earth (requires two sticks and a friend), and even gravity (requires additional string and a rock). So now, after a mere five essays, we've covered how we detect, reason, resolve discrepancies, sort out the important bits, and lay down the foundation for all that comes later.

The remainder of the book is just as chock full, though a little rarefied in places. Essays cover the sun (whose diameter depends on the wavelength of light you're using to look at it), orbital dynamics, antimatter (where the heck is it?), properties of matter, optics, chemicals, stellar forges, solar life zones, and what we know of life itself.

Of course one of my favorite sections is When the Universe Turns Bad, a collection of essays on all the things out there waiting to wipe us out: Comets and Meteors, Supernovae, the titular Black Holes and, if we escape everything else, murder by our own sun at the end of its lifetime. How can death and destruction on a cosmic scale not be fun?

I was particularly impressed by "Things People Say" in the Science and Culture section. Here are examples of many things we all know to be true, but aren't really. Oh, they're close enough that you can call it nitpicking, but still. For example, the sun doesn't rise in the east and set in the west (except for two days a year) and, except for another two days a year between 23.5 degrees north and south latitude, the sun is never directly overhead at noon. Compasses do not point north, they point to a place in Canada. Day and night are not equal on the equinoxes, astronauts in orbit are not weightless, the sun is a yellow star, and several more. Every statement is true, and every statement is false.

So pick up this book if you get the chance and give each essay a read and enough time to digest. You'll understand the universe a bit better when you're done; or at least until the next revision comes out and tweaks all the facts again.

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