Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Author: Neil de Grasse Tyson
Last Read: November 2018
Who Should Read: Amateur physicists and people who are interested in the wonders of our universe
Last Updated: 2018-11-24
I've always been interested in physics, but I wasn't able to keep up with the mathematics and crazy problems during college. Over the past two years I've started picking up friendlier physics books to try to catch up on modern developments ("modern" as in "after the 1920s"). Astrophysics for People in a Hurry falls into this category - something I can ready to learn more about our world without having to break my brain by learning crazy mathematics.
NDT starts the book off by exploring the formation of the universe after the big bang. He reaches far and wide in his astrophysics summary, teaching us about dark matter, Einstein's "biggest blunder", and how post-apocalyptic scientists won't even be able to tell that there are other galaxies. His tour of astrophysics is fast-paced and dizzying, and he keeps the reader engaged throughout the book.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is excellent for a brief taste of cosmic perspective. The universe is a grand spectacle, and it is such a blessing to be a part of it. We are the universe figuring itself out in a distant corner of the universe. While highly educational, the book is worth reading just for that brief feeling of wonder and joy in being alive.
We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.
The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you. —NDT
The world has persisted many a long year, having once been set going in the appropriate motions. From these everything else follows. LUCRETIUS, C. 50 BC
One thing quarks do have going for them: all their names are simple—something chemists, biologists, and especially geologists seem incapable of achieving when naming their own stuff.
As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E = mc2 to manufacture quark–antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold required to create hadron–antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations—leaving a billion photons in their wake—a single hadron survived. Those loners would ultimately get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias. Without the billion-and-one to a billion imbalance between matter and antimatter, all mass in the universe would have self-annihilated, leaving a cosmos made of photons and nothing else—the ultimate let-there-be-light scenario.
People who believe they are ignorant of nothing have neither looked for, nor stumbled upon, the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe.
We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.
For household lamps that still use glowing metal filaments, the bulbs all peak in the infrared, which is the single greatest contributor to their inefficiency as a source of visible light. Our senses detect infrared only in the form of warmth on our skin. The LED revolution in advanced lighting technology creates pure visible light without wasting wattage on invisible parts of the spectrum. That’s how you can get crazy-sounding sentences like: “7 Watts LED replaces 60 Watts Incandescent” on the packaging.
Albert Einstein hardly ever set foot in the laboratory; he didn’t test phenomena or use elaborate equipment. He was a theorist who perfected the “thought experiment,” in which you engage nature through your imagination, by inventing a situation or model and then working out the consequences of some physical principle. In Germany before World War II, laboratory-based physics far outranked theoretical physics in the minds of most Aryan scientists. Jewish physicists were all relegated to the lowly theorists’ sandbox and left to fend for themselves. And what a sandbox that would become.
Copernicus’s basic idea was correct, and that’s what mattered most. It simply required some tweaking to make it more accurate. Yet, in the case of Einstein’s relativity, the founding principles of the entire theory require that everything must happen exactly as predicted. Einstein had, in effect, built what looks on the outside like a house of cards, with only two or three simple postulates holding up the entire structure. Indeed, upon learning of a 1931 book entitled One Hundred Authors Against Einstein, he responded that if he were wrong, then only one would have been enough.
GR regards gravity as the response of a mass to the local curvature of space and time caused by some other mass or field of energy. In other words, concentrations of mass cause distortions—dimples, really—in the fabric of space and time. These distortions guide the moving masses along straight-line geodesics, though they look to us like the curved trajectories we call orbits. The twentieth-century American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler said it best, summing up Einstein’s concept as, “Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”
Lambda preserved what Einstein and every other physicist of his day had strongly presumed to be true: the status quo of a static universe—an unstable static universe. To invoke an unstable condition as the natural state of a physical system violates scientific credo. You cannot assert that the entire universe is a special case that happens to be balanced forever and ever. Nothing ever seen, measured, or imagined has behaved this way in the history of science, which makes for powerful precedent.
The most accurate measurements to date reveal dark energy as the most prominent thing in town, currently responsible for 68 percent of all the mass-energy in the universe; dark matter comprises 27 percent, with regular matter comprising a mere 5 percent.
Without a doubt, Einstein’s greatest blunder was having declared that lambda was his greatest blunder.
A remarkable feature of lambda and the accelerating universe is that the repulsive force arises from within the vacuum, not from anything material. As the vacuum grows, the density of matter and (familiar) energy within the universe diminishes, and the greater becomes lambda’s relative influence on the cosmic state of affairs. With greater repulsive pressure comes more vacuum, and with more vacuum comes greater repulsive pressure, forcing an endless and exponential acceleration of the cosmic expansion. As a consequence, anything not gravitationally bound to the neighborhood of the Milky Way galaxy will recede at ever-increasing speed, as part of the accelerating expansion of the fabric of space-time. Distant galaxies now visible in the night sky will ultimately disappear beyond an unreachable horizon, receding from us faster than the speed of light. A feat allowed, not because they’re moving through space at such speeds, but because the fabric of the universe itself carries them at such speeds. No law of physics prevents this. In a trillion or so years, anyone alive in our own galaxy may know nothing of other galaxies. Our observable universe will merely comprise a system of nearby, long-lived stars within the Milky Way. And beyond this starry night will lie an endless void—darkness in the face of the deep. Dark energy, a fundamental property of the cosmos, will, in the end, undermine the ability of future generations to comprehend the universe they’ve been dealt. Unless contemporary astrophysicists across the galaxy keep remarkable records and bury an awesome, trillion-year time capsule, postapocaplyptic scientists will know nothing of galaxies—the principal form of organization for matter in our cosmos—and will thus be denied access to key pages from the cosmic drama that is our universe. Behold my recurring nightmare: Are we, too, missing some basic pieces of the universe that once were? What part of the cosmic history book has been marked “access denied”? What remains absent from our theories and equations that ought to be there, leaving us groping for answers we may never find?
While many objects have peculiar shapes, the list of round things is practically endless and ranges from simple soap bubbles to the entire observable universe. Of all shapes, spheres are favored by the action of simple physical laws. So prevalent is this tendency that often we assume something is spherical in a mental experiment just to glean basic insight even when we know that the object is decidedly non-spherical. In short, if you do not understand the spherical case, then you cannot claim to understand the basic physics of the object.
Using freshman-level calculus you can show that the one and only shape that has the smallest surface area for an enclosed volume is a perfect sphere. In fact, billions of dollars could be saved annually on packaging materials if all shipping boxes and all packages of food in the supermarket were spheres.
the weaker the gravity on the surface of an object, the higher its mountains can reach. Mount Everest is about as tall as a mountain on Earth can grow before the lower rock layers succumb to their own plasticity under the mountain’s weight.
In space, surface tension always forces a small blob of liquid to form a sphere. Whenever you see a small solid object that is suspiciously spherical, you can assume it formed in a molten state. If the blob has very high mass, then it could be composed of almost anything and gravity will ensure that it forms a sphere.
The stars of the Milky Way galaxy trace a big, flat circle. With a diameter-to-thickness ratio of one hundred to one, our galaxy is flatter than the flattest flapjacks ever made. In fact, its proportions are better represented by a crépe or a tortilla. No, the Milky Way’s disk is not a sphere, but it probably began as one.
If we had eyes that could see magnetic fields, Jupiter would look five times larger than the full Moon in the sky.
Whether you prefer to sprint, swim, walk, or crawl from one place to another on Earth, you can enjoy close-up views of our planet’s unlimited supply of things to notice. You might see a vein of pink limestone on the wall of a canyon, a ladybug eating an aphid on the stem of a rose, a clamshell poking out from the sand. All you have to do is look.
Of all the sciences cultivated by mankind, Astronomy is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful. For, by knowledge derived from this science, not only the bulk of the Earth is discovered . . . ; but our very faculties are enlarged with the grandeur of the ideas it conveys, our minds exalted above [their] low contracted prejudices. JAMES FERGUSON, 1757
Yet the cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow of the Moon during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth. When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever-stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this Earth without food or shelter, and that children are disproportionately represented among them.
If small genetic differences between us and our fellow apes account for what appears to be a vast difference in intelligence, then maybe that difference in intelligence is not so vast after all. Imagine a life-form whose brainpower is to ours as ours is to a chimpanzee’s. To such a species, our highest mental achievements would be trivial. Their toddlers, instead of learning their ABCs on Sesame Street, would learn multivariable calculus on Boolean Boulevard.††† Our most complex theorems, our deepest philosophies, the cherished works of our most creative artists, would be projects their schoolkids bring home for Mom and Dad to display on the refrigerator door with a magnet.
If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relative in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we’re distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead, we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.
We do not simply live in this universe. The universe lives within us.
The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small. The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we’re told. 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. The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote. But it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have.
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