I’ll be the first to admit my overwhelming shortcomings when it comes to science. They are nearly as vast as the universe itself. How vast is the universe, you ask? I can actually give an answer to that question, having just finished Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
I actually try not to be in a hurry, but the science popularizer’s little tome was just right for me. I think it’s important to know just where we fit in the universe. We used to think that everything revolved around us, that the earth was the logical focal point of the Heavens. Kind of a come-down to discover that that was not even close to the truth. (Yet, one of our best basketball players hews to the insane notion that our planet is flat! No, not LeBron.)
For my money, Tyson is at his best when he writes about “cosmic perspective.” He eschews putting down spiritual belief and its supposed incompatibility with science. “The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge,” he writes. “But it’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.”
He suggests that cosmic perspective is humble and spiritual (but not religious). “The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.” He says that, while the Earth is merely a mote, “it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have.”
Tyson urges us to find the beauty in the remarkable images we have of planets, moons, stars and nebulae and to seize the opportunity to “transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.” And he reminds us, sternly, that there is no air in space, so that flags will not wave there—“an indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix.”
His elucidation on dark matter and dark energy is fascinating: how scientists could not explain certain effects of gravity without the pair, deducing their existence long before being able to prove their existence. Yet more fascinating is the almost certain notion that there is a lot more out there yet to be deduced, yet to be proven. The more you learn, the more you realize how much there is yet to know and understand. Think of it like an hourglass: once you get to where you have closed off all the knowledge there is to know, the possibilities open up again almost endlessly. Come on, that is awesome.
How interesting is it to learn that a heavy metal, like iridium, is so dense that two cubic feet of it weighs as much as a Buick?! Or that our constant reevaluation of the size of Pluto (smaller than the six largest moons in our solar system) has reduced it from planet to asteroid?
Also learned that—and this makes perfect sense, when you think about it—“the one and only shape that has the smallest surface area for an enclosed volume is a perfect sphere.” Explains why so many things in our universe are orbs. Which makes our Milky Way galaxy all the more interesting: It’s flatter than the flattest of crepes. Or the density of a pulsar, which he compares to “stuffing about a hundred million elephants into a Chapstick casing.” Pretty compact. And to know that we can measure something down to a trillionth of anything, well, that’s pretty amazing to learn.
But most vital, to me, is learning and understanding our place in the universe. Our galaxy alone has more than a hundred billion stars. The known universe has about a hundred billion galaxies. Out there, somewhere, there may be forty billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. Chew on that little mote of cosmic perspective for a minute (or a lifetime). In all of that, what does Tyson want to leave us with? Way too many of us have neither food nor shelter. That’s real perspective. ©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle