Tuesday 28 January 2020

Astrophysics: it's not rocket science...


Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Neil deGrasse Tyso

WW Norton, €16.99

Physicist Albert Einstein writes out an equation for the density of the Milky Way in January 1931
Physicist Albert Einstein writes out an equation for the density of the Milky Way in January 1931


The epigraph in Neil deGrasse Tyson's new book sets out exactly who he has written it to enlighten: "For all those who are too busy to read fat books/Yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos."

I have nothing against fat books, if there are corsets and romantic entanglements, but taking time out to understand how the universe works is far down on my list of priorities.

Not a problem, because friendly astrophysicist Dr deGrasse Tyson promises he can explain space, time and the essential universe to earthlings like me in Astrophysics for People in Hurry, and it won't take light years. He could have called it 'Astrophysics for people who are lazy and forgetful, but should really care more about this stuff', but that hasn't quite got the same ring.

And so, I begin my cosmic journey on a 30-minute Monday lunch break. Chapter One opens with the biblical 'in the beginning' and, despite having to read the first sentence several times, by the fourth line our acclaimed author has explained the Big Bang. This guy doesn't mess around.

He flies through the discoveries of German physicist Max Planck (regarded as the father of quantum mechanics), antimatter and bosons. But the best take-away from my first astrophysics speed-reading session is the memorable summary of Einstein's most famous equation, e=mc2. Yes, everyone has heard of it, but how many can explain it?

DeGrasse Tyson can, and he does so in a nutshell as "a two-way recipe for how much matter your energy is worth, and how much energy your matter is worth".

Over bus rides and coffee breaks, I learn about the "quirky beasts" that are quarks, protons, photons, electrons and antimatter (it exists!), and the part they play in the cosmic soup around us that came into being 14 billion years ago. There are revelations aplenty. Despite having read several articles and seen a dozen or so TV news reports about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, it's only after reading Astrophysics for People in a Hurry that I have a clue what it does.

After two chapters, my brain is full of interplanetary wonder and we've still only covered what happened a few millionths of a second since the Big Bang.

DeGrasse Tyson undoes the yawn-inducing effect of school science classes. In the chapter entitled The Cosmos on The Table, he turns the periodic table from "a forgotten oddity, filled with mysterious cryptic boxes", into something weird, wonderful and well worth knowing, or , as he puts it "a zoo of one-of-a-kind animals conceived by Dr Seuss."

Over the coming days, enthused by deGrasse Tyson's wit and passion, I dip in and out of Astrophysics whenever I have a minute to spare. I become as obsessed with Einstein and Newton as deGrasse Tyson is.

And it's not all astrophysics -it is littered with gems like this poem Einstein wrote in honour of Newton.

"Look unto the stars to teach us

how the master's thoughts can reach us

Each one follows Newton's math Silently along its path."

Apparently, it sounds even nicer in German.

The joy of this book is not just the awesome, sometimes baffling, subject matter, but deGrasse Tyson's warmth and humanity. He tells jokes, admits to once owning a geeky 'Obey Gravity' T-shirt and writes with infectious enthusiasm.

One of my favourite passages comes at the end of a chapter in which he explains the universality of physical laws. Then he tells a little anecdote about ordering a hot chocolate with whipped cream. When his drink arrives, there's no sign of the cream. The surly waiter says the cream sank to the bottom. Impossible, says deGrasse Tyson, whipped cream has low density and therefore will float on milk (or water, coffee or any other liquid that humans drink).

He offers the waiter two explanations: either he forgot the cream, or the universal laws of physics don't apply in that restaurant. Unconvinced, the waiter brings a blob of cream, and of course it floats.

So it's worth learning about physics, even if you only want to use it to win an argument.

I finished the pocket-sized hardback (208 pages) in five days. I didn't agonise over bits that went over my head and I'd still fail an astrophysics exam - but I have a better understanding about what happened before and after the Big Bang, I know how a supernova is formed, that a light year is the distance light travels in one Earth year (nearly six trillion miles) and have taken a new interest in the periodic table (I even bought a poster of it for my wall). I can also proudly assert that I have some sketchy notion of what Einstein's theory of relativity is about.

It's given me a lot more to think about the next time I look up at the night sky.

Sunday Independent

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