A collection of the author’s astronomy columns from Natural History.
Astrophysicist Tyson (Origins, 2004, etc.), director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, groups his essays into several broad categories. The first, “The Nature of Knowledge,” includes pieces on how science has grown because of extensions to our senses via instruments that collect data none of us could otherwise obtain; one essay shows what can be learned by measuring and making calculations from a stick poked into the ground. “The Knowledge of Nature” looks at basic astronomical facts: the planets, the asteroids, the points where gravity holds an object in orbit. “Ways and Means of Nature” discusses natural constants such as the speed of light and the surprisingly complicated question, “What color are the objects around the universe?” (Many published astronomical photographs show colors that correspond not to what an observer in space might see, but to phenomena the astronomer wishes to display graphically, such as the relative temperature of the objects portrayed.) “The Meaning of Life” addresses various conditions that seem to be necessary for life to evolve in a planetary system, including the “Goldilocks” question of the right temperature to allow liquid water on a planet’s surface. “When the Universe Turns Bad” discusses cosmic disasters, notably the earth’s being incinerated as the sun becomes (in several billion years) a red giant. “Science and Culture” looks at the sometimes uncomprehending reaction of the public to theories and discoveries; in Tyson’s opinion, a wider knowledge of simple math might solve many of the most bizarre responses. Finally, “Science and God” touches on those areas where science and religion appear to compete for the same turf: notably, the origin of the universe, and whether it betrays evidence of design.
Smoothly entertaining, full of fascinating tidbits and frequently humorous, these essays show Tyson as one of today’s best popularizers of science.