Book Review – Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole” is surely an imposing title, one that evokes feelings of inevitable cosmic dread. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, the affable astrophysicist and host of the recent “Cosmos” reboot, assures the readers of his essay collection that they have nothing to fear from the gravity-generating giants. Instead, he invites his audience on a fascinating survey of astronomical and general scientific topics, one whose short chapters and breezy style make for quick and engaging reading.

“Death by Black Hole” by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Courtesy of Amazon.

After struggling with the general brashness of Richard Dawkins (as mentioned in last week’s review), I found Tyson’s style to be welcoming and accessible. He makes excellent use of the essay format, limiting the scope of each chapter to a topic that can be discussed briefly but thoroughly. Tyson does not shy away from or gloss over the complex concepts that arise in his work as an astrophysicist, such as the application of spectroscopy to determine facts about cosmic objects. In that case, he skillfully contrasts numerous concrete examples of the information that can be determined from simple color photographs and broader spectra to show how important the technique is to our understanding of the universe.

As the book is assembled from a collection of essays Tyson wrote for the “Universe” column of Natural History magazine, the text does repeat some examples and covers similar territory in several chapters. But the author has generally done a good job at exploring a wide range of material, helped by broad but useful section groupings such as “When the Universe Turns Bad” and “Science and Culture.” The latter section is especially enjoyable, making perhaps the best use of Tyson’s dry and self-deprecating humor. In a section where he explains the errors in the stars of the night sky in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” he recounts a dinner conversation he had with the director. “What better occasion to tell him of his errant ways with the Titanic sky. So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, ‘The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!'”

Both astronomical novices and seasoned space fans can find something to enjoy in “Death by Black Hole.” It’s an entertaining and accessible read, and with each short chapter taking ten minutes or so to read, the book lends itself to quick jaunts into the wonders of the cosmos, each with its own mind-expanding rewards.



Book Review – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

America’s astronauts are hailed as fearless explorers of the void, boldly going into the unknown and taking giant leaps for mankind. Their spacecraft, from the mighty Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions to the workhorse Space Shuttles, are recognized as cutting-edge conveyances drawing from the latest in science and technology. And both these men and their machines, writes Mary Roach, can be undone by something as simple as a clogged toilet.

Packing for Mars, courtesy of Mary Roach

In her 2010 book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Roach takes a gleefully irreverent look at the human element of spaceflight and just how unglamorous that element can be. From space psychology to motion sickness to the aforementioned toilet troubles, she examines the myriad difficulties that face travelers evolved under Earth’s gravity when adrift in space. Her style, a uniquely entertaining blend of brilliant humor and scientific rigor, is well suited to explaining the importance of the issues while never losing sight of their essential absurdity.

At her best, Roach seamlessly integrates quotable moments from an endless selection of astronauts and NASA scientists into her riotous narrative. In referencing early Soviet experiments on restricted hygiene (an important factor on a spacecraft with limited water supplies), she at first quotes a dry phrase from the scientific report: subjects spent “most of their time sitting in an armchair.” And then she paints an absurd but accurate picture: “The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”

The book has an excellent sense of flow for a popular scientific work, each chapter lasting just as long as necessary and transitioning into each other with pithy one-liners. For example, when moving from a section on earthbound isolation experiments to one on the study of psychology in orbit, she matter-of-factly claims that “[to] find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.” Roach’s masterly use of footnotes also allows her to keep the breezy tone of the text while incorporating juicy details for the enterprising reader.

Perhaps most importantly, Roach humanizes the explorers and researchers of the space program, giving them the flaws and quirks of everyday people. A choice selection from the Apollo 10 mission transcript, where the astronauts each deny personal responsibility for an “escaped” bit of waste, reads more like a group of college kids debating “who smelt it, dealt it” than a cadre of expert pilots. “Mine was a little more sticky than that,” in the words of Mission Commander Thomas Stafford.

Although the closing of the book, where Roach expresses the ability of spaceflight (despite its foibles) to inspire wonder, feels a bit perfunctory, “Packing for Mars” remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Her work offers a unique look at, well, the crap that goes on behind the scenes as mankind shoots for the stars.

News Flash – NASA Cuts Ties With Russian Space Agency

WASHINGTON – A NASA official announced yesterday that the agency would be cutting the majority of its contact with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. Citing Russia’s “ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the Crimea crisis, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien confirmed that communications between NASA and Russian officials would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of cooperation on the International Space Station.

Launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket, courtesy of

This break comes at an inopportune time for NASA; having retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts into space. While NASA has encouraged the development of private American spaceflight companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has sent a number of resupply missions to the ISS over the past several years, Russia is currently the only provider of manned launches, charging US and European astronauts up to $70 million per trip.

Many in the agency have expressed frustration over the current state of affairs. Said one anonymous NASA scientist, “NASA’s goals aren’t political. This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration… You’re telling me there is nothing better?” The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post by NASA administrator Charles Bolden criticizing Congress about the level of funding for US spaceflight. As Bolden wrote, budgets “are about choices. The choice moving forward is between fully funding [President Obama’s] request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.”

NASA has few other options for getting its personnel into orbit in the near future. Although China has developed the capacity for manned spaceflight, current restrictions prevent NASA from hosting Chinese citizens due to fears of technological espionage. Development of the European Space Agency’s Crew Space Transport Vehicle isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and India’s human spaceflight program is only in its beginning stages.

Although perhaps better known for the competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century, the relationship between the Russian and American space agencies has recently been one of productive collaboration. From the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 to NASA’s visits to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, scientists have managed to mostly avoid the political tensions between the two countries.

Internet Roundup – IN SPAAAACE!

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos,” as I discussed in my recent review, relies heavily on blockbuster computer-generated imagery to ground viewers in the immense scale of the universe. However, humanity has acquired plenty of actual images from the cosmos that are no less inspiring. Moving outward from our own planet, here’s a small collection of thought-provoking shots from space.

Can you find one of the only personal homes visible from space? Courtesy of NASA.

Looking down from the International Space Station, astronauts can see Earth’s cities aglow with electric light. But one of the most interesting features in Tokyo is instead conspicuous by its darkness. The dark spot in the middle of this photograph represents the palace of the Japanese emperor and his household, set off from the urban sprawl of the city by a large park.

Not exactly Pink Floyd’s version, but the dark side of the moon nonetheless. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

If this picture of the Moon looks somehow off, it’s because this view is impossible to obtain from Earth. Because the Moon’s rotational period is exactly the same as its orbital period, only one of its hemispheres is visible on our planet’s surface. The Apollo astronauts, however, were able to snap this picture of the far side in the course of their mission.

A time-lapse of the death of Comet ISON. Courtesy of ESA.

The fame of Comet ISON was much like its lifespan: brief. As seen in this composite image of the comet’s path, it swung in from the outer solar system to pass barely over a million kilometers from the surface of the Sun, absorbing heat and being torn apart by gravity.

Neptune’s rings are a far cry of the famous ones surrounding Saturn. Courtesy of Universe Today.

While Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous in the solar system, others of the gas giants have their own systems of orbiting particles. Neptune has five rings, but they are so faint that their existence wasn’t definitively established until the flyby of the Voyager 2 probe in 1989.

This false-color image of the “Mystic Mountain” is one of Hubble’s finest images. Courtesy of NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team.

The Hubble Space Telescope, over the course of its nearly 24 years in orbit, has revealed unforeseen beauty in the outer reaches of space. This mountain of gas resides in the Carina Nebula, 7500 light-years from earth, and contains an array of young stars within itself that release the dramatic jets seen in the image. Yet the “Mystic Mountain” wouldn’t appear as beautiful to the naked eye; the colors of this picture represent different elements present in the nebula.

The Sombrero Galaxy, perhaps the most creatively named of all galaxies. Courtesy of NASA/ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team.

Earth’s location, as Carl Sagan so often discussed on the original version of “Cosmos,” is nothing particularly special. But it does afford us some spectacular vantage points of astronomical objects, such as this edge-on view of the Sombrero Galaxy taken by Hubble. The swirl of dust on the outside of the galaxy stretches over 300,000 light-years, and the galaxy itself is 28 million light-years from Earth.

Up to 155 – The Large European Acoustic Facility

As succinctly phrased by the tagline for “Alien,” the classic sci-fi horror flick, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The gasses found throughout space are present at densities that are simply far too low to propagate audible sound waves. However, getting out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the silence of the void can be an extremely noisy proposition. Even after the engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center installed a sound suppression system on the launchpads of the space shuttle, the roar of the rockets at ignition reached 142 decibels (dB), roughly twice as powerful as the loudest rock music ever played (139 dB, during a sound check by the heavy metal ensemble Manowar).

Engineer Kees van Zijtveldt and the largest horn of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Those metalheads would be unusually envious of the engineers of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Located at the European Space Agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the LEAF is capable of producing sounds in excess of 154 dB — easily enough to rupture human eardrums. For safety purposes, the facility’s speaker horns can’t even be enabled until all of its doors are securely closed, and a set of half-meter-thick concrete walls and rubber pads keep the volume away from the rest of the research building in which it is housed.

Although these features keep the scientists in charge of LEAF from headbanging to Iron Maiden until the early hours of the morning, they have more important work to conduct: testing spacecraft and satellites against the sound stresses encountered in the violence of a rocket launch. Sound is carried through the air as waves of pressure, and higher dB values represent larger variations of pressure. When buffeted by these waves, the intricate components of the technology being launched into space can be disrupted, affecting the success of important scientific or economic missions. The LEAF technicians expose spacegoing vessels to extreme levels of noise and check for any mechanical or electronic failures, insuring launches against pricey (and embarrassing) mistakes.

The ESA claims that exposure to the LEAF system, when running at full blast, would be enough to kill a listener, but that boast may be slightly exaggerated. While permanent hearing loss might occur, the noise wouldn’t be quite loud enough to damage the internal systems of the body; the threshold for lung rupture and embolism is approximately 200 dB.

Back from the Horizon – No Black Holes?

When Stephen Hawking isn’t flying in zero gravity or throwing parties for time travelers, the Cambridge physicist is hard at work theorizing about the extremities of our universe. Much of Hawking’s scientific adoration comes from his groundbreaking work on black holes, and the book that established his popular reputation, “A Brief History of Time,” is largely concerned with the implications of these astronomical oddities. The buzz around Hawking’s most recent paper, then, is understandable, considering that it claims black holes do not exist.

Artist’s rendition of the Cygnus X-1 black hole sucking matter from its companion star. Courtesy of Stardate.

The traditional view of black holes can be traced back to 1676, when the Danish astronomer Olaf Roemer first proposed that light had a finite speed. After Isaac Newton outlined his theory of gravity, other scientists began to consider how this speed might be affected by the gravitational pull of large objects. If light was made of particles that had mass (which we now know to be untrue), as hypothesized by the English physicist John Michell, it might be possible for a body to be so massive that its gravitational pull would slow light down or even prevent it from moving altogether. In 1783, Michell published a paper suggesting that stars hundreds of times the size of the Sun could trap their own light, rendering them invisible to Earthbound observers.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Michell’s ideas were revisited, this time in the context of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein visualized gravity as a “warping” of space, where an object with mass deformed the space around it like a bowling ball depresses a taut rubber sheet. Under this framework, German astronomer Karl Schwarzchild proposed that a sufficiently massive object, compressed by gravity into a single point, would warp the space around it so that, beyond a certain point (called the Schwarzchild radius or the event horizon), light could not escape. Black holes could only be discovered through their effects on other astronomical entities, and the first well-established black hole was not discovered until 1971.

Hawking doesn’t dispute the existence of extremely dense, massive objects that are very difficult to detect from Earth, but he does challenge the idea that black holes are actually, well, black. His essential objection comes from the all-or-nothing nature of the event horizon. Under the traditional view of black holes, any information about the matter that passes the horizon is lost forever, as no light carrying the information could possibly escape. However, recent work in quantum mechanics suggests that some information can travel faster than light and would not be destroyed by the hole.

To solve this contradiction, Hawking has proposed that the event horizon should be replaced by what he calls the “apparent horizon.” With this hypothesis, light and mass are only trapped temporarily in the black hole before quantum effects spit them back out in a much more chaotic state. Mathematically proving the hypothesis, however, requires a theory of gravity that behaves accurately on the quantum mechanical level, and this, says Hawking, “remains a mystery.”

Cleaning House – Fighting Space Junk

You may get annoyed if a passing driver on the interstate litters your path with a soda can, but it’s unlikely to cause any serious danger to your automobile. Now, imagine that the can is flying toward you at over 3,000 meters per second (over 6,700 miles per hour) — and you’re flying a spacecraft instead of driving a car.

This is the danger posed to future astronauts by orbital “space junk,” the detritus left from earlier space missions that now circles the Earth without human control. NASA tracks over 500,000 pieces of debris, 20,000 of which are larger than a softball, including a number of full-sized satellites and rocket boosters. Currently, astronauts have few possible responses to encountering this junk: those in the International Space Station either perform a “debris avoidance maneuver” or, if they lack sufficient warning, hunker down in an attached Soyuz capsule that can serve as a lifeboat if a collision should occur. But aerospace engineers are investigating proactive methods that could eventually clean up the mess mankind has left in orbit.

Space junk in orbit above Earth, courtesy of NASA

Two of the most seriously considered technologies seem like they’ve leapt off the screen of “Star Wars.” The first, proposed by James Mason and his colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center, involves turning the beam of a ground-based laser onto troublesome pieces of debris. A laser powerful enough to actually destroy an object would be prohibitively expensive (sorry, wannabe Vaders), so Mason instead plans to use the beam to push junk objects out of dangerous paths. Photons, the “particles” that make up light, carry momentum that is transferred to whatever they run into; this force is relatively tiny, but applied over the course of several hours, a stream of photons could nudge debris into harmlessly burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. It’s worth noting that the same principle could also be used to propel spacecraft, as has been explored by designers of “solar sails.

The second proposal, offered by Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder, is eerily similar to the tractor beam seen in many works of science fiction. A satellite, which Schaub playfully acronymed GLiDer (Geosynchronous Large Debris Reorbiter), would emit a stream of electrons towards a piece of space junk, giving the debris a negative charge while the satellite gained a positive charge. This charge difference would cause the object to become attracted to the satellite and trail behind it; after the junk gained speed, the satellite would release the beam, launching it into deeper space. Although the process is relatively slow, an estimated two to three months per object, a collection of GLiDer satellites could make short work of the larger obstructions in geosynchronous orbit.

Space, in the words of science fiction author Douglas Adams, “is big — really big.” But in our neighborhood, useful orbits are limited, and carelessly cluttering them up may have severe consequences for future space exploration and development. These cleanup methods are a good place to start in solving the problem, but the message for space agencies should be clear — don’t litter.