Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

by Neil DeGrasse Tyson


Death By Black Hole is a series of essays on the universe adapted from pieces that appeared in Natural History magazine. The book is a sort of bite-sized guide to cosmology. It covers a wide range of topics: the speed of light, Lagrange points, antimatter, the history of planetary discoveries, density, spectroscopy, the expanding universe, interstellar dust clouds, supernovas and much, much more. Some of it deals with things many people will have learnt at school, but the author swiftly moves on from the basics to more advanced details.

The first section tackles the limits of our knowledge, whether it's a result of the shortcomings of our own senses, our technology, or whether we examine things in minute detail or at a distance. It's an overview of the issues involved rather than an in-depth look at this subject. Sections two to five delve into the real nitty-gritty though, journeying from the planets to the stars and beyond, and from the start of the universe to its eventual end. This is very accessible given the subject matter. Neil DeGrasse Tyson peppers his writing with humour and explains everything in a vivid style that makes the subject easy to grasp.

There are some aspects of the universe that are inevitably rather depressing. For instance there's the death of stars, including our own, or the supermassive black holes that gobble millions or even billions of stars. The author devotes a section to all the different ways the cosmos is out to kill us. It's hard to read this kind of thing and not feel insignificant compared with the vast scale of the universe. The dramatic scenarios he describes are mercifully either remote possibilities or inevitable yet long-distant, but they're explained clearly and with a touch of gleeful morbidity.

To be fair it's not all about death and destruction, in spite of the book's title. There's also a lot of fascinating detail about how the molecules of life emerged from the processes within stars, and a little about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and the Drake equation.

The last two sections are a bit more like rants. They deal with the public perception of science and the clash between science and religion, so inevitably there's a lot of scope for frustration from the point of view of a scientist. The author makes persuasive points about such things as the importance of testing theories scientifically, about poor science in movies, and the place of religious doctrine in the science classroom. Of course if you've reached this part of the book he's probably preaching to the converted in any case, but at least he does it in an entertaining way that brings fresh ammunition to the debate.

This is quite a US-centred book, and some of the essays are fairly short. Yet it's informative as well as engaging. For science students who are not yet at university level as well as anyone with a casual interest in astrophysics it serves as a useful introduction to the subject.

4th April 2011

Book Details

Year: 2007

Categories: Books


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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson