Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

From 2+2 to Superstring Theory and beyond…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

welcome-to-the-universeThe preface explains that this book arises from a course run by the three authors at Princeton University – a course on the universe for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. My knowledge of science is pretty basic and my maths is, if anything, even dodgier. So although the idea of the book intrigued me, I feared it might be way over my head.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. The first section is Stars, Planets and Life with Tyson as the main author and a couple of chapters from Strauss. It starts brilliantly for the beginner, with an introduction to the very simplest stuff, like how long it takes for the Earth to revolve on its axis. At this early stage, Tyson assumes no prior knowledge and lays down some terminological groundwork for the more difficult stuff to come later. For example, he explains exactly what an Astronomical Unit is and that it is abbreviated to AU. He’s very funny, so that these chapters are entertaining as well as informative.

Yay! Finally I understand what 'parallax' means! Credit: J Richard Gott
Yay! Finally I understand what ‘parallax’ means…
Credit: J Richard Gott

Each section takes the history of scientific discovery as a template for explaining what scientists know about the universe today and how they know it. All through the book, the authors are careful to credit those who came before, even when subsequent discoveries may have proved them wrong in some aspect. They show how even disproven theories contributed to the advances made by later scientists. There are a couple of chapters in this first section that are very heavy on maths and, truthfully, lost me so badly that I wondered whether there was much point in continuing. But I decided to struggle on and happily discovered that most of the book is perfectly accessible even to those of us whose eyes glaze over at any equation more complex than 2+2=4. On the other hand, there’s loads of very well explained maths in there for anyone whose mind works that way, or who wants to get a feel for whether they would like to study astrophysics at higher levels perhaps.

...and why humans don't glow in the dark! Credit: Michael A Strauss
…and why humans don’t glow in the dark!
Credit: Michael A Strauss

Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. It’s fascinating stuff and made me realise how often popular science books just tell the reader something and expect us to accept it. Not this one – every statement is backed up with detail of how we know these things and what they mean in the broader context of the universe. Throughout, the book is superbly illustrated, not just with pretty pictures (though most of them are) but with clear, beautifully designed and explained diagrams and charts that are hugely helpful in understanding the text and visualising things like size comparisons. This section finishes with a chapter on the search for planets that could support life, explaining exactly what scientists are looking for and why, and how they’re going about it.

From simple... Credit: Robert J Vanderbei
From simple…
Credit: Robert J Vanderbei

Strauss takes over as the main author for the second section on Galaxies. He takes the reader through the history of how our own galaxy was first mapped and then the discoveries that led to scientists realising that the Milky Way is only a tiny part of the universe. This section has some fantastic images from the various exploratory missions like Hubble, but the really great thing is that Strauss explains in detail what we’re actually seeing – how to interpret the images rather than just admiring them. He then goes on to explain the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. There is a fair amount of maths again in this section, but I found it easy to ignore for the most part while still grasping the concepts Strauss describes.

...to sublime... Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona
…to sublime…
The Trifid Nebula – Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona

The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond. I hold my hands up – it’s at Einstein that my brain always closes down and I find myself overwhelmed with an urgent desire to giggle, somewhat hysterically. However, Gott actually explained the whole E = mc 2 thing well enough for me to more or less grasp, plus for the first time I now kinda understand why nuclear bombs work (not sure of the usefulness of that knowledge, but you never know when it might come in handy). His explanation of black holes and spaghettification is both humorous and clear.

...to speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles... Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
…to speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles…
Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

He then takes us through all the stuff that sound more like Star Trek plots than science (to my limited mind) – cosmic strings, wormholes, time travel, superstring theory, inflation, etc. While I’ll never fully grasp this stuff and retain a large degree of cynicism about a lot of it, Gott’s explanations are great, and hugely enhanced by some of the best and clearest diagrams I’ve come across, including a spectacular six-page spread in full colour showing Gott’s own map of the universe. He finishes with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang, and shows how these (crazy-sounding) ideas arise out of the most recent science, while making very clear which bits have been confirmed by observation missions and which haven’t yet. Fascinating stuff! His final plea is for Earth to look quickly at colonising Mars to increase our species’ chances of longterm survival.

The three authors discuss the book…

This is a great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across. It seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy. Highly recommended, but do get the hardback rather than the Kindle – it’s beautifully designed and produced, and the illustrations are an essential aid to understanding the text.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press. All illustrations are from the book.

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46 thoughts on “Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

  1. I am such a fan of Tyson, FictionFan! I’m not surprised that you found this book both informative and accessible. That’s the way he his, and I really appreciate that about him. His whole point is making science accessible to all of us, and I couldn’t support that more. This one just went onto my wish list.

    • I haven’t really come across him much before, but he’s really excellent at getting info across in an entertaining way! So are the other two – less funny perhaps, but equally enthusiastic and clear. If you manage to get hold of it at some point, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

    • It would be a fab Christmas present, since it looks great as well as actually being great! No, I haven’t – I’m terrible at watching films. I must look out for it though – it sounds intriguing and I’m fascinated by all this space stuff…

  2. Yes, this one is for me!! I love the PBS series about how the universe works and all that stuff, and I understand it all while I’m watching, but ask me to explain it 10 min. after the show is over and I can’t. I think having a book handy for reference would be great. It’s on top of my Christmas wishlist now.

    • Ha! That’s exactly what I’m like! Every time I read one of these books I kind of get my head around it all, and then find it’s completely gone again! So I agree – this one will be staying on my shelves and I can dig it out any time I need a quick refresher… I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I think you will! 😀

  3. This sounds like an interesting … if deep … book on a subject most of us don’t know enough about. Thanks for reviewing it here, FF. I must admit, it’s not my usual choice for reading fare, but as a reference, it sounds ideal. And, like you say, who knows when one might need knowledge such as that contained within its covers?!!

    • I love all this stuff even if I don’t understand a lot of it, and what I loved most about this one is that it’s explained clearly without being in any way “dumbed down”. It will certainly be staying on my shelves for reference in the future – the next time I urgently need to remember what Superstring Theory is, for instance… 😉

  4. WELL done – though the thought of the nasty little beasts a goodly proportion of us seem to be despoiling another planet after we’ve trashed this one, doesn’t fill one with much hope either………….SIGHS. Perhaps it might be better to let whatever weird life forms might be in some kind of evolution on that planet, get on with its red spaghetti soup. Who knows, it might be evolving altruism as a given, instead of carbon base

    • You’d get on well with Gott – he seems to be fairly convinced that intelligent life brings about its own destruction, and mankind is doomed… doomed, I tell ye, Capt Mainwaring! And who would disgaree with that? But look on it this way – perhaps we could send all the politicians off to the new colony… think how much better Earth would be then? I shall start drawing up a passenger list for the first flight out…

    • Oh, I’ll be fascinated to know what you think of it, since you’ll actually be able to judge the scientific stuff, which I just have to take on trust for the most part. I loved all the diagrams and stuff though – it really helped me to understand what they were explaining. One I’ll re-read, for sure!

        • The third section is the one I found most interesting (and least comprehensible!) because it had all kinds of things I haven’t really read much about before. I have a feeling Hawking might have to join my list of people I’ll never really understand… 😉

          • I have a feeling Hawking might have to join my list of people I’ll never really understand

            He’s published a very short (novella-length) autobiography called, I think (it’s not to hand), My Brief History. It’s very readable and explains some of his ideas far more simply than I’ve seen elsewhere.

  5. Sounds interesting – especially the part where you can ignore the maths and still get the gist. It’s one of my great regrets that I was quite incapable of understanding maths.

    • Me too – my brain just seems to close down and refuse to co-operate! But with this one, the maths is much better explained than usual, but it’s still fine to skip it – a really great book…

  6. Although this isn’t the kind of book I’d chose for myself it does sound as though it manages to inform at a basic level while still moving forward with the various concepts and theories – it sounds like a good gift idea.

    • A great gift for anyone interested in this sort of stuff – it’s actually a gorgeous book even apart from the content. The kind of thing that definitely should be read in hardback…

      • Bill Nye is getting pretty political these days. He appears in interviews more than I’ve ever seen before, and his big concern is the inevitable destruction of the planet thanks to climate change deniers and politicians unwilling to do what may be unpopular.

        • I don’t really know him – he must be a mainly American phenomenon. But yes – I can see why any scientist would be gnashing his teeth over climate change denial! I am myself…

            • I was! The school I went to was very ‘arts’ based and the science side was pretty badly supported. My brother was at a different school at the same time which was science-based and he ended up much more interested in it. But even if I’d had the best teachers in the world I still don’t think I’d understand Einstein… 😉

            • I can imagine. In my case, I was put off chemistry for life through being taught organic chemistry first (by an up-himself teacher), physical chemistry later (by a shy, lisping but in fact enthusiastic teacher). Since organic chemistry is just a matter of rote learning unless you have the physical chemistry to understand what’s going on . . .

            • When I was doing it, they’d decided to stop teaching separate subjects so chemistry, physics and biology were all lumped together as “science”. Result: you couldn’t do physics unless you were prepared to cut up frogs and pregnant rats. Being way too squeamish (and a bit bolshie), I spent most of my time outside in the corridor and dropped science at the earliest opportunity…

  7. Please read my hypothesis about Dark Matter.
    Neutrinos and Electromagnetic waves that come from outside the galaxy are not rotating with the galaxy. They will pass by if unobstructed. The time dilation on their frames of reference when close to the galaxy is greater. Especially if compared with frames of reference at a greater distance . Similarly to how relativity (length contraction) explains electromagnetism, neutrinos and electromagnetic waves density is higher in the frames of reference closer to the galaxy than those far from the galaxy. In a way, there is a reservoir of neutrinos and electromagnetic waves around galaxies that is constantly renewed with new energy.

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