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.

Twitter Roundup – Daily Science Updates

Having newly acquired a smartphone, I can attest to the potential of these devices to be distracting. However, the ability to stay updated on the latest science news is a great benefit, and a number of scientists and science organizations (including this blog) have taken to Twitter as a means of communication. Here are ten of the most interesting, amusing, or informative feeds I follow on a daily basis.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – The popular astrophysicist provides a humorous but scientific perspective on current events, as exemplified by his recent spin on the Alex Rodriguez doping scanadal. Oh, and he’s met Superman.

Asteroid Watch – If an event like that which took out the dinosaurs is going to happen, NASA’s Near Earth Object Office will make sure you’re among the first to know.

What-If Numbers – This feed documents the research conducted by xkcd’s Randall Munroe as he prepares his weekly “What If” blog, reporting such unusual statistics as the total number of living teeth in the US (over 7 billion) and the combined length, in miles, of all living blue whales (120).

YA BOY BILL NYE – While the real Bill Nye does have a Twitter, it’s rarely as amusing as this over-the-top (and slightly NSFW) parody. Contained in the craziness are often some cool science facts, like the ability of turkeys to run 20 miles an hour.

Science Magazine – For a more serious take on the news of the day, there’s no more authoritative source than the feed of the world’s leading journal.

Adam Savage – The Mythbusters cohost provides a behind-the-scenes viewpoint on the popular TV series while also retweeting many of the more “spectacular” science pictures and videos on the web.

World Wildlife Fund – The conservation organization combines calls to “clicktivism” with fascinating tidbits about nature (and often stunning animal photos).

Joanna Manaster – This professor from my graduate alma mater provides a very accessible perspective on current biology and other science, often with a healthy dose of nerd culture thrown in.

Kevin Corbett – Any students would be advised to follow this feed, which focuses on the growth of technology use in higher education and the concept of “gamification,” where video games power learning and achievement.

Marion Nestle – Nestle, a professor at New York University, combines political and scientific news into a comprehensive picture of the agricultural and food issues facing the United States and the world at large.

Sky With Diamonds – Asteroid Mining

The croudsourcing website Kickstarter has had its share of audacious projects in the past, but one that wraps up at the end of this month is truly out of this world. Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based aerospace company, has already achieved its initial goal of $1,000,000 for the ARKYD space telescope. Named for a corporation in the Star Wars universe, the satellite will provide public access to state-of-the-art imaging capabilities, allowing anyone from grade school science fair competitors to grad school doctoral candidates to take pictures of objects in space. While itself revolutionary, ARKYD is only a side project for the company; its main goal is the profitable exploitation of asteroids.

Asteroid mining concept, courtesy of Wired.

The idea is an ambitious one, but Planetary Resources has gained the support (and funding) of respected businessmen and scientists, including Google co-founder Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt,  investor Ross Perot, Jr., and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The company undoubtedly requires vast amounts of start-up capital: possible asteroids must first be identified with the ARKYD telescope, then examined by flyby missions and surveyed by prospecting satellites. Once viable targets are found, however, the company will have a business model based on the law of gravity itself. Any real colonization or exploration of space requires large amounts of bulky, heavy raw materials, especially water, which can serve as everything from human life support to spacecraft fuel. Yet launching the necessary quantities of these materials from Earth’s surface is ludicrously expensive, ranging from $4,500 to $11,000 per pound. The materials harvested in space would have already overcome the most expensive part of space exploration, getting into orbit, and could be sold at prices well below the cost of launch.

Existing research on asteroids has shown them to be full of useful and valuable materials, and different types of asteroids contain different riches. C-type asteroids, the most common, are largely composed of carbon and are most promising for the extraction of water. S-type asteroids, or “stony” asteroids, are made mostly of iron and magnesium compounds, which could provide the raw materials for manufacturing in space. Perhaps the most glamorous, however, are the M-type, or metallic, asteroids. These rocks are the rarest asteroid type, but what they lack in quantity they make up in quality: just one platinum-rich M-type asteroid is thought to contain approximately 7,500 tons of the precious metal, a value of over $150 billion.

Given these kind of figures (literally) floating around, there has been surprisingly little exploration of the legal ramifications of asteroid mining. The most relevant piece of legislation is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a U.N. resolution that protects “the moon and other celestial bodies” from “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This law has received only one challenge over the course of its existence, a claim by Gregory Nemitz, CEO of the private space exploration company Orbital Development, to the asteroid Eros in response to NASA’s exploration of the object. The lawsuit was dismissed without an official decision, leaving the legality of claims to asteroids unsettled. Nemitz’s opinion on the matter, however, is worth quoting: “Today it is probably best to just carry forward with the engineering projects aiming to extract and use space resources and not worry too much about property rights. Property rights are officially recognized primarily to protect property from theft and vandalism. Space is vast and there aren’t any neighbors vying to steal your property, so don’t worry too much about it.”

YouTube Roundup – Music Videos of Science!

I’m spending the weekend at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., where thinking productively about science is more or less impossible. Although there’s plenty to be said about the science of acoustics or the engineering of guitars, headbanging makes it very hard to write. Instead, I’ve collected an array of ten YouTube videos that show scientists can rock out too!

Symphony of Science – “We Are All Connected”
Auto-Tune finally gets used for something worthwhile as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy explain the essential unity of all things.

Tom Leher – “The Elements Song”
If your high school chemistry teacher never showed you this little ditty, something went wrong. All the building blocks of the universe are sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”

Zheng Lab – “Bad Project”
Every scientist can sympathize with difficulties in the lab, and this team from the Baylor College of Medicine channel the spirit of Lady Gaga to turn disaster into delight.

They Might Be Giants – “Science is Real”
For all those times when someone fails to acknowledge a scientific fact, it’s better to turn to this cheery song by the U.S.-based indie band than to get angry.

A Capella Science – “Rolling in the Higgs”
All the excitement about the Large Hadron Collider is reflected in this impressive feat of overdubbing, where one man explains the discovery of the Higgs boson to the tune of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

GZA – “Dark Matter”
This member of the venerable Wu Tang Clan (also at Bonnaroo) plans to release a number of science-inspired albums, giving a new meaning to the common lyric “droppin’ knowledge.”

Epic Rap Battles of History – “Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison”
As heated as the “War of Currents” of the 1880s may have been, it’s got nothing on this freestyle throwdown between two of history’s greatest inventors.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – “Pancreas”
One of the most under-appreciated organs in the body gets a soulful paean from the king of odd subject matter (also at Bonnaroo), accompanied by a music video with all the creepiest elements of 1950s educational film.

BioRad – “GTCA”
The biotechnology company shows an unexpected side with this masterful parody of “YMCA,” a short and sweet tribute to DNA replication. So good, you’ll hardly realize it’s an advertisement for their new line of PCR kits!

Chris Hadfield – “Space Oddity”
The former commander of the International Space Station covers the David Bowie classic while literally “sitting in a tin can, far above the world.” The guitar may have cost $75,000 to get into orbit, but the gorgeous backdrop of this video shows it to be money well spent.