Thursday, September 3, 2009
Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
I have often lamented the passing of my favorite popular scientist, Carl Sagan, by talking about how necessary he is right now. We are at a point in our history where scientific illiteracy is growing, where people are not only ignorant of how science works, but are proud of their ignorance. What we need is someone who can reach the majority of Americans who are not especially scientifically literate - the people whose automatic reaction to science is to think, "That's just too hard for me to deal with."
Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He's appeared on countless television programs, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, to talk about the current state of astronomy and astrophysics. He's an engaging and entertaining man, who claims that Pluto was "asking for" its demotion, who seems to take perverse pleasure in describing all the terrible ways the universe could take us out. He knows that we're in a precarious position, here on Earth, and he revels in it rather than worrying about it.
Whereas Sagan seemed to come from the point of view that the universe was a place of infinite wonder, where one could look anywhere and be awed and humbled, Tyson's attitude is more of the universe as an infinite theme park - a place where you could see your electrons stripped from your body, watch gas clouds larger than our own solar system collide and ignite, or see planets crumple under cosmic bombardment. Tyson's universe is an adventure, as big as it gets.
This book is a collection of essays that Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine over a ten year period, on a variety of subjects related to science and scientific inquiry. In many ways, it's similar to every other pop science book out there - and there are so very many of them - but it is his perspective and his voice that makes this one stand out from the crowd.
He's grouped his essays into seven sections, on topics ranging from the difficulties inherent in actually knowing anything about the universe to the understanding of how life went from little mindless bacteria to we clever Homo sapiens to the intersection of science and religion. Most of it is accessible to the average non-scientist, though he does get a little technical at points. But he understands that, and he tries to compensate for for the fact that, by and large, the public is intimidated by "real science." In the essay entitled, "Over the Rainbow," he discusses this particular challenge by using spectroscopy as an example.
In spectroscopy, astrophysicists look at the spectrum of a star, hunting for telltale dark lines that indicate the physical properties of stars. It's like looking at a rainbow with bits blackened out of it, as though the CIA had somehow gotten to it first. Those black lines contain all the vital information about the star's composition and, more importantly, speed. Very little can be gleaned by just looking at the star, as it turns out. He notes five levels of abstraction, starting from the star itself:
Level 0: A star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines in the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
These descending levels of abstraction can apply to any branch of science, not just astrophysics. The challenge, as he notes, is getting people past level 1, which is easy to understand but is not the level at which true science is done. It is up to educators, he says, to help make people comfortable with looking at real science, and not just pretty pictures.
Indeed, there are several sections of the book dedicated to the intersection between science and the public. He talks about how easily we are baffled by numbers (why are below-ground floors not labeled -1, -2, -3 etc?) and how casually we disregard actual scientific facts. He brings up some of his favorite moments in bad movie science, and how he single-handedly saved Titanic from ignominious astronomical shame. At least, on its DVD re-release. He addresses the historically shifting centers of science in human history, how things like NASA are truly a global endeavor. Without the discoveries made through history by people all over the planet - from England to Greece to Baghdad - there would be no NASA, nor any science that we recognize. And to assume that the United States will always be the center of scientific discovery is to willfully ignore history.
And, of course, there's a section dedicated to the conflict between religion and science, a never-ending battle that has existed since science began. Tyson believes that there can be no common ground between the two - science relies on facts, religion relies on faith. This is not to say that one is better than the other, any more than, say, a hammer is better than a screwdriver. It's just that you can't use them interchangeably. And he points out that becoming a scientist doesn't require you to give up your faith. There have been, and still are, countless scientists who are believers in the Divine. It's just that most of them know enough not to confuse science and spirituality.
The place where they meet, historically, is on the boundary of ignorance. Isaac Newton, having figured out gravity, couldn't quite work out how you could have a multiple-body system like our solar system without the whole thing falling into chaos. His conclusion - God must, from time to time, step in to keep things on the right path. Having done that, Newton went on to do other things, and it wasn't until the next century that Pierre-Simon laPlace decided that he wasn't satisfied with Newton's "Insert God Here" argument, and did the math for himself.
In other words, God is a marker on the boundaries of ignorance, and the best of us are tempted to let Him answer the questions that we can't. To do so, however, impedes the path of science and stops progress in its tracks. What if Newton had said, "No, I'm going to figure this damn thing out." Would we be a century ahead in our technology by now? Maybe, maybe not. What if the Catholic Church had listened when Galileo said, "The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." Might more progress have been made? So many great thinkers have come up to the boundaries of their knowledge and, humbled by what they do not know, chose to allow The God of the Gaps reassure them.
But that's the whole point of science, and it's what this book, and others like it, are trying to instill in people. The unknown is not horrible, it is not terrifying, and it's not a place to just stop. It's a place of awe and wonder and bafflement and opportunity. To say, "I don't understand it - it must be God" is short-changing ourselves and our heirs out of even greater knowledge of the universe.
"Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless something baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole
Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Amazon.com
The Hayden Planetarium