Wednesday, August 08, 2007

An astro-columnist on the rise

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, collections

Some of my favorite writers are (and have been for decades) working (or retired) scientists who write periodically for various publications. I cut my reading teeth on "Mathematical Games" by Martin Gardner and "The Amateur Scientist" by C. L. Stong in Scientific American, to which I've subscribed since about 1960. Later favorites included Stephen Jay Gould's "This View of Life" in Natural Science and Jerry Pournelle's various "Chaos Manor" columns in computer periodicals (I mainly read Byte). I'd have read Carl Sagan had he had a column; novels were more his style. I didn't subscribe to New England Journal of Medicine, but I read Lewis Thomas's collections of essays whenever they hit print.

Up and coming: Neil deGrasse Tyson. I read The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist before starting this blog. Looking at his web site I note that he has seven titles in print. Now that I have read Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries it seems I have five to go.

Dr. Tyson directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He writes the "Universe" column for Natural History, and the book is a collection of 42 of these essays. He grouped the essays under 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
  • Science and God
As it is a scientific work, the book sports not only a bibliography but also two indices, one of Names and one of Subjects. The Subject Index is one of the more detailed I've seen for a book this size.

The author has a Puckish sense of humor, as one can see from the names of the first two sections. He tends to end the odd paragraph or section with a twist, such as the end of his discussion of the future of the Sun:
"..the Sun will swell...Earth descends, sinking nearer and nearer to the center...Shortly thereafter, the Sun will cease all nuclear fusion; lose its tenuous, gaseous envelope containing Earth's scattered atoms; and expose its dead central core.

"But not to worry. We will surely go extinct for some other reason long before this scneario unfolds."
In the essay "On Being Baffled" he produced a one-liner, and quoted another, that I quickly put on a poster for my office door:
  • Bafflement drives discovery
  • Feynman: "...figuring out the laws of Physics is like observing a chess game without knowing the rules in advance."
There is also this, from "Things People Say":
"Consider the following declarations. the North Star is the brightest...The Sun is a yellow star. What goes up must come down...In space there is no gravity...Total eclipses are rare. [I elided three other items.]

"Every statement in the above paragraph is false."
He goes on to explain each misconception. His explanations not only make sense, they challenge us to observe simple things to back them up, observations anybody could make but very few ever do.

Love it! He has a way to go to attain the graceful style of Gould (if he wants to), but he is already a mature, enjoyable writer of great scope.

I must mention a couple errata, which I'll pass along to him, hopefully in time for the paperback edition.

Writing of Copernicus: "Copernicus nonetheless maintained perfectly circular orbits, unaware of their mismatch with reality." Partly true. Copernicus used epicycles as Ptolemy had. His system just didn't need as many.

Writing of the plasma channel formed briefly by lightning, a plasma. He's been discussing astrophysical plasmas at temperatures of millions of degrees again. He attributes similar temperatures to the lightning. Lightning channel temperatures do not exceed 30,000 K (55,000ºF). Plenty hot, anyway.

Minor stuff, really. Now, time to track down some more of his books...

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