January 26, 2009 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | January 26, 2009 |


Neil deGrasse Tyson’s anthology of science articles only briefly deals with the eponymous scenario, but delves into a myriad of other scientific details in a meandering book that is sometimes brash, sometimes humorous, but always fascinating. At the center of Tyson’s writing is the idea central, but often ignored, in all science: We are not special or unique. This simple realization is at once obvious and terrifyingly unbelievable, but is also critical to making the smallest headway in scientific understanding. What exists out there is fundamentally the same as what exists here. Without that basic understanding, there is no way to understand at all what goes on in the universe outside our insulated sphere.

The universe is vast and old. So vast and so old that we cannot even really understand it on familiar terms, but only at several removals of distance. We can only understand the scale logarithmically, like Russian dolls. The sun is so big that we could fit a million earths inside it, and it is so far away from us that we could fit ten thousand earths between us and it. Space is so vast and distant that the fastest spacecraft we have ever built would still take over 70,000 years to reach the nearest star. That’s ten times longer than we’ve had civilization. The galaxy is so big that it would take 700 million years for us to send that same spacecraft across it. That’s ten times longer than the dinosaurs have been extinct. And the galaxy is not just vast, but filled up with a mind-boggling number of stars: at least a couple for every human being who has ever been born in all of history. Top that off with the fact that in the known universe, there are at least as many galaxies as there are stars in our galaxy. In the grand scheme of the universe, our entire planet and history are less proportionately significant than a single cell of your skin.

The other point I took from Tyson is the phenomenon of the God of the Gaps. When we understand something, it is explainable, we only attribute the hand of God to things that we don’t understand. Even physicists like Newton took this shortcut, attributing the stability of orbits (something his own work could not reconcile, and which waited another century for LaPlace to figure out) to the periodic intervention by God himself. We see God in the gaps in science’s understanding the same way that primitive man explained the rising and setting of the sun with God’s hand. The key is that the things science can’t explain at the moment should not be scoffed at or defined as limitations in the concept of science itself. This is the central belief in science that has never been disproved: the universe is fundamentally knowable. It obeys laws and rules which we can work out, however shallow our current understanding of those laws may be.

Here’s the topper, the great equalizer of science: all those unimaginably distant and huge and alien objects are composed of the same materials as your body. We are billion year old stardust. That doesn’t make us special, it makes the universe knowable.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of stipe42’s reviews.

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100 Books in One Year: Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cannonball Read / stipe42

Books | January 26, 2009 | Comments ()



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