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.



TV Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and science communicator (and indirect namer of this blog), made perhaps his largest contribution to popular culture through the miniseries “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” originally aired in 1980 on the Public Broadcasting Service. The 13-episode program took viewers from the microscopic worlds inside their cells to the edge of the visible universe, sharing the science of the era in an easily accessible but still comprehensive fashion. Now, one of Sagan’s proteges, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is anchoring a reboot of the series titled “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX and Mondays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey reimagines the groundbreaking series developed by Carl Sagan. Courtesy of Slate.

The result, debuted last Sunday, is as much a reflection on current popular and political culture as it is a exploration of scientific knowledge. The most obvious way in which the new “Cosmos” is grounded in the present is its whiz-bang presentation: Sagan’s original “ship of the imagination,” the device that transports the viewer around the universe, is updated into a sleek, shining craft that has drawn comparisons to the latest Star Trek movies and Eve from Disney’s “WALL-E.” The rest of the graphics of space share that high-budget Hollywood blockbuster polish, as might be expected from a prime-time television series; executive producer Seth MacFarlane, better known as the creator of “Family Guy,” has a keen understanding of the modern viewer’s visual expectations.

Yet MacFarlane’s influence is also felt in an extended animated sequence discussing the 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno, one of the first men to explore the idea of a universe not centered around the Earth, that strays from the main thrust of the series. The story plays up the conflict between Bruno’s open-minded speculation and the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church of the era, making this personal battle the focus of roughly a quarter of the hourlong episode. The whole segment seems to magnify the supposed conflict between religion and science (perhaps capturing the spirit of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate); although Sagan was a confirmed skeptic of the supernatural, he wrote brilliantly on the sense of spiritual wonder to be found in science and led efforts to unite religious leaders in environmental advocacy. Instead of uniting viewers in wonder, Bruno’s story feels like a dig at the portion of the audience for whom the program is arguably most important.

“Cosmos” finally hits its stride after returning to the conceit of the “Cosmic Calendar” used in the original series. By condensing all of time into a single year, Tyson effectively communicates the mind-blowing scope of the universe and the miniscule amount of it occupied by recorded human history (approximately 14 seconds). This reminder of the original program is followed by a touching tribute in which Tyson shares the story of his first meeting with Sagan. The human element of this segment, focused on the positive interaction of minds and the continuity of scientific exploration, is far more uplifting and powerful than the tale of Bruno and provides an example of the stories “Cosmos” should pursue moving forward.