Book review, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Charles Liu, Robert Irion; One Universe : At Home in the Cosmos

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Book review,
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Charles Liu, and Robert Irion;
One Universe : At Home in the Cosmos
hardcover, 218 pages, published in 2000 by Joseph Henry Press
paperback 2nd edition published by Norton, 2010

This collaboration by astrophysicists Neil de Grasse Tyson and Charles Liu and science journalist Robert Irion has its strength in the way it clarifies a number of issues about astronomy and cosmology. Every page or two it provides beautiful and colorful artwork to accompany each topic. To me, this format, and the elevated price, gives it the appearance of a coffee table book, and suggests giving it as a birthday present to your favorite science lover. I speak here especially of the hardcover edition, which is more of a work of art than the recent paperback release.

However, instead of telling a historical story of astronomical discovery in a smooth progression, the book sometimes jumps with noticable abruptness into and out of topics. This structure reminds me of an unalphabetized encyclopedia in that it cover a specific point for one to pages pages, attaches a full page of gorgeous artwork, and then introduces to another topic.

For example: What is meant by the search for a "theory of everything" [pages 183-184], and the hypothesis of string theory [185], and do these ideas imply the possibility if hidden dimensions? [186-187]. The separation of these topics is not made formally, but I find it apparent.

As the work of such respected scientists and science writers, the book is factually perfect. I'll eat my hat if you can find a sentence within that any scientist can challenge as being explained improperly. Beyond having high accuracy, the explanations are made easy to grasp, even when the topics are advanced. I appreciate the way the book offers an explanation in simple English of the distortion of space and time which occurs when the motion of an object approaches the speed of light. [22-24]

The book is published by Joseph Henry Press in Washington D.C,, a division of National Academy Press. This is the publishing arm of the National Academy of Science. The man recognized in the name, Joseph Henry, was an inventor of several of the electrical appliances found in your home, one of the co-founders of the National Academy of Sciences, and an administrator of the Smithsonian Institution.

Probably since everyone has seen stars in the sky, an early topic in the book is to explain the way the stars seem to move -- not actually move, since the earth is rotating. A line drawn through the earth from the south pole to the north pole, and then extended outward, reaches out to the star Polaris, which is why that star is always located to the north, the so-called North Star. Given a picture of a few constellations near Polaris -- the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and the W-shaped Cassiopeia, imagine this picture rotating a quarter of a turn in 6 hours, due to rotation of earth. [12] Now look up at the sky again, and it will make more sense.

A sketch showing the retrograde motion of Mars [18] answers a question that has often seemed mysterious to me. The people who lived before Copernicus and Galileo, assuming that the Sun and planets revolved around the earth, could only conclude that Mars periodically reverses direction and moves in loops. Once we acknowledge that all of the planets revolve around the sun, the need for that loop motion immediately goes away -- that Martian behavior is only an optical illusion produced by the angle from which we are looking.

It is comforting that, where scientists don't yet know everything, this fact is readily admitted. The book says: "Radioactive dating of rocks from the Moon shows that it formed at about the same time as the earth. But the manner of that formation remains a topic of hot debate." [92] The illustrated summary of the impactor theory of the formation of the moon [96] clears that up a bit.

A segue that I enjoyed began with a general explanation of the electromagnetic spectrum [121-126], followed by an account of how this makes more types of astronomy possible, such as radio astronomy and microwave astronomy. [127-133] Even gravitational waves may soon be used to make astronomical measurements. [132-133]

The elements in stars and planets which give off light are responsible for putting particular lines into a spectrum of light, and then the passage of that light through gases is responsible for the removal of particular lines. And so we speak of spectrum having emission lines and absorption lines. These lines inform us about what elements and compounds the things out there are made of. [134-136] Once you are introduced to that concept, you can easily see how the Doppler effect works in general, why it is important for astronomy, and how it has led to the discovery of planets revolving around other stars. [137-139]

That topic of how to detect which elements and compounds exist in heavenly bodies prepares us to better address the fascinating question of whether there might be life on other worlds.

Would it be possible to detect life on another world without traveling there? Oxygen quickly combines with metals and rocks, therefore, if we detect free oxygen in the atmosphere of another planet or moon, then something is presently releasing that oxygen. Perhaps there are organisms performing photosynthesis. Methane is another temporary substance in the atmosphere of a world. The reaction of methane plus oxygen yields water plus carbon dioxide, therefore any methane in atmosphere cannot remain for long. If we detect methane in the atmosphere of another planet or moon then there must be some process continuously producing it. Life is one possible answer. [158]

Some of the appended reference information includes a four-page timeline chart entitled "progress in understanding the cosmos", a two-page glossary of terms, and a four-page 3-column index.

- - - - - Book review my M.L. for crimsonbird.com, Dec. 11, 2010