Book Review, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Neil DeGrasse Tyson,
in Death by Black Hole

"Case closed. Or is it? Scientific inquiry shouldn't stop just because a reasonable explanation has apparently been found." [Page 276]

Book Review
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole : And Other Cosmic Quandaries
Published by Norton
Paperback published in 2007 and reissued in 2014
384 pages
12-page subject index
ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06224-3
ISBN-10: 0-393-06224-4

Death by Black Hole is a collection of 42 articles written over an eleven year period by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the "Universe" section of Natural History magazine. The 6-page article "Death by Black Hole", which gives the book its title, is just one of them, forming chapter 33.

For some of the articles it is evident what recognition brought about their selection for this anthology. For example, chapter 40, entitled "In the Beginning" (9 pages), was the 2005 winner of the annual Science Writing Award issued by by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Several other articles, not necessarily winners of awards, were selected simply because they are good.

Dr. Tyson's day job is his association with the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. He also created the TV series Cosmos : A Spacetime Odyssey on NatGeo, a reboot of Carl Sagan's 1980 PBS series Cosmos : A Personal Voyage. IMHO, some of his best public outreach has been his production of the podcast series StarTalk, where he usually collaborates with comedian co-hosts.

In composing Death by Black Hole, Tyson was particularly successful in making it (relatively) easy to understand the early history of universe. Allow me to summarize what I learned from a particular five-page story:

The Planck era was before universe was an infantile 10-43 seconds old. All of the fundamental forces were one combined force. It was at the end of the Planck era that the gravitational force separated from other forces. When the age of the universe was 10-35 seconds, the electroweak and strong nuclear forces separated. Afterward, the weak force and electromagnetic forces separated. [Pages 340-341] At that time the universe contained quarks, anti-quarks, leptons, anti-leptons, and bosons. (Electrons, which are part of the recipe for making atoms, are examples of leptons.) [342] It is estimated that particles of matter outnumbered particles of anti-matter by a ratio of a billion and one to a billion. [342] When the age of the universe was a millionth of a second, quarks combined into hadrons. (Hadrons are composite particle made of several quarks. Protons and neutrons are some examples of hadrons.) [343] As we learned from Einstein, energy and mass can transform into each other. When any particle and its anti-matter version meet, both are annihilated and transformed into photons (quanta of electromagnetic energy). Due to the initial imbalance in the quantities of quarks and anti-quarks, it became the case that almost all of the anti-matter was (and is) gone. [343] After the temperature dropped to a chilly 100 million degrees, it was cool enough for protons and neutrons to combine into nuclei. The temperature had to drop to below 3000 kelvins for nuclei and electrons to combine and form atoms. [344]

The essay "Seeing Isn't Believing" [38-47] is a tour of the assumptions that seem obvious and are also wrong. For the present moment, let's just say that the fact that it appears that the sun seems to revolve around the earth, but it really doesn't, isn't the only example of things not being what they seem. Prepare to be hit with numerous others.

While not intending any insult of Stephen Hawking, I have regarded Neil deGrasse Tyson as the one science popularizer best said to be treading in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. This work reenforces my opinion.

- - - - - - Book review by Mike Lepore for