An astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, where he serves at its world-famous Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson has written a popular account of the evolution of the universe: its past, present, and future--from its beginning with a big bang to its ending with a whimper.
In Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, Tyson sees the universe "not as a collection of objects, theories, and phenomena, but as a vast stage of actors driven by intricate twists of story line and plot."
Each of the book's 42 chapters first appeared, in one form or another, on the pages of Natural History magazine under the heading "Universe" and span the 11-year period of 1995 through 2005. In spite of modest editing of the essays, there remains some overlapping and repetition of information.
Tyson divides his work into seven sections: "The Nature of Knowledge," "The Knowledge of Nature," "Ways and Means of Nature," "The Meaning of Life," "When the Universe Turns Bad," "Science and Culture," and "Science and God."
He discusses, respectively, the challenges of knowing what is knowable in the universe, the challenges of discovering the contents of the cosmos, the challenges and triumphs of knowing how we got here, all the ways the cosmos wants to kill us, the ruffled interface between cosmic discovery and the public's reaction to it, and when ways of knowing collide.
Tyson introduces a diverse company of actors who perform on the universal stage: galaxies, solar systems, stars, quasars, black holes, supernovas, planets, moons, comets, asteroids and meteorites. These cosmic thespians emerge as a strange, bizarre, mind-boggling, awesome and dangerous cast of characters.
Along the way, we meet some of the big names in the history of astrophysics: Nicolaus Copernicus, whose De Revolutionibus (1543) placed the Sun instead of Earth at the center of the known universe; Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, who extended the Copernican revolution; Sir Isaac Newton, whom Tyson calls "one of the greatest intellects the world has ever seen," and whose Principia (1687) described the universal laws of gravity; Albert Einstein, whose special theory of relativity (1905) and general theory of relativity (1916) postulated that space-time is warped in the presence of massive gravitation fields; Max Planck. the founding father of quantum mechanics; and Werner Heisenberg, proponent of the infamous uncertainty principle.
A recent speculation about how the universe works is string theory, which seeks to unite the apparent contradiction between how the macrocosmos works (determinism) and how the microcosmos works (indeterminism). Like many of the quandaries that baffle physicists, the jury is still out on string theory.
Tyson is deeply committed to the scientific method. He is an empiricist, pragmatist, skeptic and, one suspects, an agnostic. In "The Perimeter of Ignorance," the final section of his book, Tyson fulminates against the 17th- and 18th-century view of a "clockwork universe" and its modern version, "intelligent design," which is itself a disguised version of so-called Creation Science.
Far from being a clockwork universe, Tyson argues, the cosmos is actually a chaos. "The invisible light picked up by the new telescopes," he writes, "shows that mayhem abounds in the cosmos: monstrous gamma-ray bursts, deadly pulsars, matter-crushing gravitational fields, matter-hungry black holes that flay their bloated stellar neighbors, newborn stars igniting within pockets of collapsing gas . . .galaxies that collide and cannibalize each other, explosions of supermassive stars, chaotic stellar and planetary orbits."
One doesn't have to venture into the outer reaches of space to find such mayhem: "Our cosmic neighborhood--the inner solar system--turns out to be a shooting gallery, full of rogue asteroids and comets that collide with planets. Occasionally, they've even wiped out stupendous masses of Earth's flora and fauna. The evidence all points to the fact that we occupy not a well-mannered clockwork universe, but a destructive, violent, and hostile one."
Tyson's conclusion? "Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. . . . It doesn't belong in the science classroom." He deplores the prospect that we Americans might just sit in awe of what we don't understand, mesmerized by a pious allegiance to "the God of the gaps," while our science and technology loses ground and we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.
Tyson comes across as having an excellent grasp of the current state of astrophysics, cosmology, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines, and, except for a few dense passages, he conveys his knowledge clearly to the nonspecialist, often doing so with ingratiating humor and wit.