Cosmic Queries by Neil deGrasse Tyson with James Trefil

Star Talk’s Guide to Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. Edited by Lindsey N Walker

National Geographic, 2021, 311 p, including i p Author’s Note, i p Introduction, ii p Acknowledgements, iv p Further Reading, iii p Illustrations credits, vii p Index and i p About the Authors.

Modern Physics can be a daunting and impenetrable subject to those unfamiliar with it (even to those who study it or for whom it is their life’s work.) Quantum mechanics is especially difficult. Richard Feynman once said that nobody understands it.

This book is an attempt by the authors to explain modern Physics concepts to (I assume) the general reader in ten chapters exploring our place in the Universe, how we know what we know, how did the Universe become what it is, its age, what it’s made of, the nature of life, whether we are alone in the Universe, how it all began, how it will end, and what does nothing have to do with everything. I would say it succeeds admirably. Footnotes or headnotes are cleverly disguised by setting them off with yellow lines so that they do not appear to be footnotes or headnotes, as are occasional examples of Tyson’s dated and timed historical tweets on various subjects. (My favourite, “Don’t Give up on us yet. Americans are inching towards the metric system.”)

Tyson and Trefil adopt an informal style, the feeling is as if they are having a conversation with the reader. As far as I recall there are only two equations rendered as such, that for Hubble’s law and of course Einstein’s most famous. (Another Tyson tweet, “You Matter. Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared. Then you Energy.”)

The book is gorgeously illustrated with both historical and modern diagrams/pictures and photographs. One of these is a quite stunning “plan” view of the Milky Way showing its prominent spiral arms and the sun’s place in it.

Striking to the British reader is that temperatures are always quoted in Fahrenheit (before the Celsius figure is given in brackets.) This just seems very backward to someone from a country where the former temperature scale – and the imperial weights and measures system – was superseded around sixty years ago.

The text is a lucid summing up of present knowledge via a trawl through the past – though possibly overtaken by the confirmation of an unexpectedly large wobble of muons which may mean there are at present four forces working on the universe rather than three. This is how science works though, knowledge continually being tested against experiment, and explanations for the detected phenomena updated as a result. I cannot say whether someone lacking a background in Science would find Cosmic Queries as readable as I did but it would certainly act as a good primer for anyone eager to explore the subjects. My copy was very tightly bound, however, making it necessary to hold the pages firmly to keep them open.

I thank National Geographic for sending me this book for review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the world’s first federally funded research institute” (this was in Denmark, as far as I know never a federal country. Elsewhere than in the US ‘state funded’ would have been the appropriate phrase, but then ‘state’ means something different in the US,) “on hearing of the new device, Galileo immediately improved the existing design” (I think Galileo had to get his hands on one first rather than just hearing of it, before he could improve it,) spacecrafts (the plural of spacecraft is spacecraft,) antennas (whatever happened to antennae?) sprung (sprang,) “was the first show that” (the first to show that.) “Gold is the element of choice in this experience for how thin it can be hammered” (in this experiment,) “that only about a 10th of one percent … bounced back at him” (should be ‘that about a tenth of one percent’ – the surprise was that any at all bounced back,) “10-3 second”, “0.001 second” and “0.000001 second” (10-3 seconds, 0.001 seconds and 0.000001 seconds,) the text refers to zero gravity (zero gravity does not exist; there is always something exerting a gravitational pull, ‘zero gravitational potential energy with regard to Earth’ was meant,) “far enough away that Earth is no longer trying to pull it back” (ditto. Earth is trying to pull it back, it’s just moving too fast for Earth to do so,) William of Ockham (was always spelled Occam in my day but Ockham is now widely used.)

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