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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