Yes, yes, I know … Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson did not just come out, and it is not part of any current news story, so I’m not supposed to mention it in a blog post, because blog posts are only about things that happened during the last forty-five minutes or so. But what did happen in the last few minutes is that I finished reading it, and I’m recommending it to you.
It is said that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a modern day Carl Sagan … an astronomer who is superb at communicating science to the masses. That is sort of true but not exactly. Sagan and Tyson actually practice in different subfields of astronomy (rather pedantic of me to point out) and Tyson’s style is different. Aside from being a bit edgier, I find Tyson to be more like Asimov in his discussion of stuff about the universe. I’m reminded, when reading Death by Black Hole, of the Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Universe. Which, I admit, I read when it came out, so it has been a few years…
Death by Black Hole is a fairly comprehensive review of the main issues in modern astrophysics. In particular, Tyson focuses on how we know things, and how the how part sometimes interferes with, or at least makes more difficult, the dissemination of that knowledge. He points out, for instance, that to explain the details of one of the most interesting fairly recent finds in astro-science … the nature and composition of interstellar gas clouds … one needs to explain spectroscopy. Explaining spectroscopy, or any other fairly technical methodology, is often a deal-killer when it comes to getting people excited about something. I had this problem the other night when I had to explain to a bunch of people how optically stimulated luminescence worked in order to say something interesting about the recent pre-Clovis archaeological find in Texas. Fortunately, I was able to relate the esoteric dating technique to baseball and glow-in-the-dark plastic Virgin Marys, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Death (the book) is a collection of previously written essays edited slightly to account for natural redundancies and cross references.
The best part about the book is simply Neil deGrasse Tyson’s approach to explaining things that can be hard to explain. He also interjects the extra enthusiasm one gets when an author is speaking about pet peeves, about things like how the sun is depicted in art and how certain science is depicted in certain movies. The book is NOT about death by black holes. That is only one of the many topics covered. There are, it turns out, a whole bunch of other ways to die. He covers all the important ones.
If you haven’t read it, then read it. The Kindle edition is less than 9 bucks.