Compulsory Reading for Everyone

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson is mind-blowing in the scope it covers, impressive in making complex, cutting edge science accessible for a non-scientific reader, and delightful in its use of humor to break the complexity of science lingo and concepts.

Tyson starts with the big bang – did you know the big bang took billions of years?!!– and explains it together with a plethora of other concepts and phenomena, from theory of relativity to gravity, nuclear and electromagnetic forces, matter, anti-matter, quarks, hadrons, quasars,  on and on. He goes on to describe the appearance of Homo sapiens from the “primordial soup” that formed our planet. All through this, and through the whole book, he is extremely modest about himself and science: “…ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist. People who believe they are ignorant of nothing have neither looked for, nor stumbled upon, the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe.”

Tyson demonstrates that the chemical elements humans have discovered are the building blocks of all planets, comets and stars in the universe, and the laws of physics, like for example the law of gravity, are the same everywhere in our galaxy too.

The third chapter, “Let there be Light”, talks about the formation of light, temperature of the universe, and the cosmic microwave background. Tyson guesses when questions arise in the incredulous reader’s mind about his statements and with, “You can’t make this stuff up,” goes on to prove the statement/theory he’s proposing. This particular reader doesn’t claim that she understands everything Tyson says, but I did understand most of it, and it was so incredible that I kept on reading and re-reading passages, looking up words and taking notes.

In two separate chapters, Tyson explores the interplanetary and intergalactic space.  At this point I balked. Why hadn’t they told me in school there were BILLIONS of galaxies? All they talked about was our puny Milky Way!  Then I thought that might be the fault of my age, rather than our physics curriculum. They probably didn’t know back then that there were billions of galaxies.

“All the fun in the universe happens between the galaxies rather than within them,” Tyson says. Dwarf galaxies, supernovas, cosmic rays, quasars, pulsars and the effect of gravity on distorting the light they project are discussed.

The chapters on dark matter and dark energy talk about the long process, by trial and error, culminating in the discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, which is “…dark energy ….the most prominent thing in town, currently responsible for 68 percent of all the mass-energy in the universe; dark matter comprises 27 percent, with regular matter comprising a mere 5 percent.”  “Regular matter” means what we see, touch, hear and experience of what forms the universe.

Did you know we can only see 5% of all that exists in the universe?!! I certainly didn’t.

In two separate chapters Tyson explores chemistry and light. These include the fascinating process of prediction and discovery of all the chemical elements on the Periodic Table, the equally tantalizing process of the discovery of invisible forms of light (infrared, ultraviolet, etc.) and electromagnetic spectrum (x-ray, microwaves, etc.)

Tyson doesn’t just analyze science, but relates it to everyday life, often quoting famous people and scripts:

In explaining the reason for planets being round, he quotes Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low.”

In the beginning of the chapter,”Invisible Light” he quotes Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And he uses his refreshing sense of humor every chance he gets. In the chapter on Dark Matter he says: “So dark matter is our frenemy. It’s kind of annoying. But we desperately need it in our calculations to arrive at an accurate description of the universe.”

He often makes self-deprecating remarks, “I am now accountable for some of the solar system’s interplanetary debris. In November 2000, the main-belt asteroid 1994KA, discovered by David Levy and Carolyn Shoemaker was named 13123-Tyson in my honor.”

And he presents philosophical reflections. Regarding our “cosmic perspective” he says, “It’s about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” And regarding our humble interconnectedness with everything in the universe he remarks, ”I began to think of people not as masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years…”

He also makes observations about the nature of science, “Around the world, varying belief systems lead to political differences that are not always resolved peacefully. The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them.”

He ends with a warning against thinking that our knowledge of the cosmos is enough and we don’t need any more scientific explorations: “In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their ‘low contracted prejudices’”.

This book should be compulsory reading for everyone, because it’s about our environment, on a large scale. It’s about our planet, its chemical and physical properties and its scale and place in the universe. And by extension our scale and place in the universe. In Tyson’s own words, “At one time or another every one of us has looked up at the night sky and wondered: What does it all mean? How does it all work? And, what is my place in the universe.” Not only are these questions answered in a most satisfying way in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, but you’re left “hungry for more”.

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What if…

I’m not a fan of thrillers.

They seem artificial and formulaic to me.

But I like physics generally, and astrophysics in particular. And when I was raving to my daughter about physicist, Brian Cox’s TV episode, Why We are Here, in which, among other things, he talks about the theory of infinite universes, her eyes lit up and she said, “You have to read Dark Matter! You’ll love it!”

I did, on both counts, despite the fact that it’s a thriller, and it is literally a page-turner. More on that to follow.

The story is about Jason Dessen, a university professor who has a happy family life with his wife and teenage son. One night he is abducted, his life is taken from him, and he’s thrust into someone else’s life, in a parallel universe. He goes on a long, painful and perilous quest across the multiverse to get his former life back.

Blake Crouch’s dedication page for his Dark Matter reads, “For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.” And yes, the novel is about asking yourself, “What if I had done x instead of y?”, but it’s also about a lot more than that. First and my favourite: the book’s premise is the quantum theory as expressed by Schrodinger and Heisenberg. But let that not scare you at all. It is explained in a simple and totally comprehensible way by the protagonist, who happens to be, guess what? A physicist. Crouch applies the quantum theory that is true at sub-atomic level to the world as we know it, at the macroscopic level. The result is an imaginative, mind-bending, roller coaster of a book.

Now that, if you can believe it, is not all that the book is about. It’s about priorities: career versus love, fame versus family, mind versus heart. It’s about taking the road less traveled by and whether or not it will make all the difference. It’s about identity. Who are we if stripped of our credentials, job, family, friends, credit cards, bank accounts, cell-phone, material possessions. It is also a love story, and at this level it’s about the importance of love and relationships in life.

Dark Matter is an ambitious book which delivers what it’s set out to do. It manages to keep its multiple settings, characters and their interactions real, despite its sci-fi premise. It explains the scientific aspect in layman terms, so the reader can understand and buy into the plot twists, surprises and shocks.

And towards the end, when you’re thinking, What?!!! How is this going to end? Crouch also manages to bring the book to a reasonable and satisfying conclusion.

My only beef with the book is its writing style. Particularly the excessive use of two techniques:

About 25% of the book is written in paragraphs consisting of one to five-word sentences or fragments . With that kind of a word count per page no wonder it’s a page-turner.

And there’s a gross overuse of violent action verbs like:

“I kill the engine.”

“Clarity comes crashing.”

“We break out of the forest.”

“I punch on the lights.”

I understand the reason for the use of both these literary devices, but in this case their use is exaggerated. I just don’t enjoy it. Did I mention I’m not a fan of thrillers?

But I really liked this one. It’s a brilliant mental and emotional exercise.

How Will You Meet your Death?

Hey, People

Hey, you over there
who are sitting on the shore, happy and laughing,
someone is dying in the water,
someone is constantly struggling
on this angry, heavy, dark, familiar sea.

Nima Yushij (1896-1960)

 

 

How will you meet your death?

That inevitable, quintessential milestone.

Head on, sword drawn, fighting?

On your knees, begging?

Splayed on your back, defenseless?

Expecting and waiting

In serene wisdom?

Hiding in a cave shuddering?

In your sleep, unaware?

Having suffered years of pain,

Weakened and demoralized?

Walking into oblivion,

Asking but not receiving?

Taking the government to court

To allow you assisted suicide?

Believing you’re destined

For salvation in a better place?

Or that this earthly vessel

Is all there is?

Life is a bitch and then you die?

Or “Knock and the door will be opened to you”?

Singing “Hineini, hineini,

I’m ready my Lord”?

Staging your farewell concert?

Writing your own requiem?

“Death be not proud”? Or

“They give birth astride of a grave”?

 

Does it even matter?

 

It has you around its finger

It drags you through mud at will

And it blows you out at whim.

The rest is an empty gong.

Ode to the Sydney Opera House

 

You sit in your white glory

By the blue ocean

 

 

Like a flock of birds

Ready to take off

 

Like swollen sails

Setting off to sea

 

Like a sophisticated statue

The chiseled spirit of creativity

 

Like segments of a ripe citrus fruit

Tempting and mouth watering

 

Like nothing

 

Resembling the actual

Steel, cement,

Brick and mortar

You’re made of

 

You’re not a building

You’re an artistic masterpiece

 

You shouldn’t be out on the street

You belong in an art gallery.

Loss

For Johnnie

A lone yellow mum from the huge bouquet

you brought me only two weeks ago

still sits on my desk

 

Your car is in your garage,

Your mug on your coffee table

Your jeans on metal hangers at your cottage

Your tools outside in the shed

 

Your cat is at your sisters’

Your texts on my cell phone

Your voice rings in my ears.

 

Ania said you didn’t need to be born this time,

You came only to help her cope with life.

 

It was easy to believe her.

You were loving and generous,

Light-hearted and witty

Discreet and graceful

 

A superior human being.

 

You saw Ania off,

Nursed your sister after her operation,

Took care of her move when she had to downsize

Went on the trips on your bucket list

And having accomplished your mission in this life

Serenely bid it farewell.

 

I hope you find another reason to come back

To grace the life of a few more mortals

Though too late for me

to enjoy your presence one more time

 

EnRoute

Hanz is 86 and has been living in a nursing home for two years.

Using his walker he often visited his acquaintances on different floors

He even had the reputation of a flirt among the young female staff.

A couple of months ago Hanz forgot the elevator code.

One day last month he couldn’t find his room.

Last week he complained that he keeps buying expensive stuff, but his friends steal everything from him.

“I know they’re going to kill me,” he said to me yesterday. “Please watch out for me!”

Today Hanz refused to eat his lunch.