For Science: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Death by Black Hole”

Death By Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is an epic read. What makes this stand out from the average science essay collection is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s unwavering expertise in combination with his remarkably down-to-Earth explanations of not only how things happen, but also of how we discovered how things happen.

For instance, everyone today knows there is a constant speed of light, and we actually encounter it, sometimes in latency in the Internet. But as far as our intuition goes, light moves infinitely fast, i.e. it is instantaneous. In fact, I still remember Bill Nye the Science Guy trying to outrun a beam of light in his show. After many tries, he was never able to succeed.

Tyson reveals to us that even Galileo, in 1638, thought that light was instantaneous, when his lantern experiment failed to yield a measurable delay. It was not until Ole Rømer who first saw and interpreted correctly the evidence that light is not instant. In “Speed Limits”:

Years of observations had shown that, for Io, the average duration of one orbit—an easily timed interval from the moon’s disappearance behind Jupiter, through its re-emergence, to the beginning of its next disappearance—was just about forty-two and a half hours. What Rømer discovered was that when Earth was closest to Jupiter, Io disappeared about eleven minutes earlier than expected, and when Earth was farthest from Jupiter, Io disappeared about eleven minutes later.

Rømer reasoned that Io’s orbital behavior was not likely to be influenced by the position of Earth relative to Jupiter, and so surely the speed of light was to blame for any unexpected variations. The twenty-two-minute range must correspond to the time needed for light to travel across the diameter of Earth’s orbit. From that assumption, Rømer derived a speed of light of about 130,000 miles a second. That’s within 30 percent of the correct answer—not bad for a first-ever estimate…. (p. 120)

That someone deduced the speed of light with 1600’s technology is remarkable.

In addition, Tyson enlightens us with the exciting information we all want to know. Antimatter, for instance, annihilates on contact with normal matter, releasing tremendous amount s of energy. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, a tiny vial of antimatter explodes with the violence of a nuclear bomb. But what if a Sun made out of antimatter collided with our own Sun? How big would the blast be? According to Tyson in “Antimatter Matters,” the explosion would be frighteningly large:

If a single antistar annihilated with a single ordinary star, then the conversion of matter to gamma-ray energy would be swift and total. Two stars with masses similar to that of the Sun (each with about 1057 particles) would be so luminous that the colliding system would temporarily outproduce all the energy of all the stars of a hundred million galaxies. (p. 106)

While this anthology is comprised of essays which are all distinct and divided into categories, it is still possible enough to read it like a normal book from start to finish if you are a science enthusiast.

However, given the sheer variety of different topics, there are wide jumps of topics and some overlap of subject material between essays that might alienate a some readers. This was not too much of an issue for me, but I did find the lack of an overall thesis sort of strange, and this this forced me to read it in a different manner than for most books. For someone interested in a popular book on astrophysics that was originally intended as a book, I would highly recommend Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, which is more coherent and packs more punch than Death by Black Hole.

This is not to say that Death by Black Hole is without merit. It is one of the few books to explain not just the contents of scientific discoveries, but also the discovery process itself, which can oftentimes be more fascinating to learn about than the results. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the finest communicators of science in our time, and I always find his talks on YouTube fascinating. As an essay collection on science, Death by Black Hole is unmatched.

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