‘For people in a hurry,’ in the sense that it this is a tiny volume, pocket sized with barely 200 pages and not small type; and also in the sense that a universe of complex ideas are treated briefly and with concision. Perfect for those who want a general sense of what terms like multi-verse, dark energy and Boolean Algebra mean, without the years of schooling and boggled-brains it would take to really ‘know’ this stuff.
For those folks (of which I count myself one), Tyson does a great job, leading us in somewhat random-feeling steps from the relatively-intuitive astronomic understandings that give us a map of the nearby (solar system, asteroids) to the tougher concepts that make up our current best understanding what the entire universe consists of, how it was formed and how it behaves, at levels from the molecular to the quantum. Along the way he delivers plenty of staggering numbers such as:
the portion of all matter/energy which is visible vs that which is totally invisible except through its effects – that being ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ accounting, for if memory serves, some two thirds of all there is!
The number of molecules in a single cup of water – which is greater than the total number of cups of water in all the oceans of earth!
The number of bacteria in one inch of a human colon – which is greater than the number of all the humans who have lived through all time!
And many, many, more
Of particular appeal are passages recounting a few great miss-understandings which even great minds have labored under, and how those very mistakes eventually led them and others to new discoveries, an essential part of the scientific method which is sometimes lost in the shouting matches of reactionary culture wars.
Once all that knowledge has been disseminated, a final summation touts the intellectual and moral benefits of these concepts being understood widely, partly to cultivate the skills of thought that will lead to success in other pursuits, but more importantly to instill the awe, wonder and humility that enable us to better appreciate and manage our environment and culture. Some of that falls flat, as when he suggests the absence of atmosphere in space means we should not engage in ‘flag-waving’ about space exploration – a very tenuous stretch of analogy. For the most part though, Tyson is an inspiring democratizer.
All in all, a worthy volume to read, and perhaps a good tool to raise the level of conversation at cocktail parties and Covid-lock-down video calls. Thanks NdGT!
(which now that I’ve typed it out, looks like an algebraic designation of some great import…if I assign the value of G as 27 to tenth power, and T as the length of time since the big bang, and d as the cosmic constant, can I solve for the value of N? Hope your not holding your breath!)