Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’


Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Neal deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert. (Unfortunately, I cannot find who to credit for this photo. My apologies to the photographer)

This is an outstanding experience.  For one thing, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most impassioned champion for science.  He is inspiring.  For another, Stephen Colbert turns out to be the best of interviewers.  He is funny, yes, but what comes out most is his sincere interest and humanity.  And underneath all of the great information is the sight of two smart, interesting people truly enjoying each other and the subjects they discuss.  It’s a long video, and the audio is a bit distracting for the first part, but stick with it.  You’ll be glad you did!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How Old is the Universe?” by David A. Weintraub

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

“How old is the universe?” is one of those questions that separates the creationists from everybody else.  It also turns out to be a question that we have only recently answered (and by recent I mean during my lifetime).  But between Cardinal Usher’s attempt to use all of the “begats” of the Bible to come up with an age for the earth of about 6,000 years  and the decoding of the Cosmic Microwave Background that  showed the actual age of the universe to be some 13.6 billion years, there is a tale of science, astronomy, discovery, mistakes, corrections and dogged determination that makes the closing statement of this book a reasonable one:

Click image to go to the publisher's webpage.

“The trials and errors, painstaking observations and  brilliant insights that have led to this answer amount to one of mankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements.”

And impressive it is.   Impressive and complicated.  Reading about it turned out to be, at times, challenging for my primate brain to process.

This book is written for a popular audience, and I can find no fault with the writing.  The problem of a book like this is that the author (who is clearly in command of the information) is attempting to describe some very complex and mind-bending concepts to a big-brained animal that was grunting in a cave somewhere not that long ago  (that would be us humans).  I simply had to allow myself a pass to not completely grasp every mathematical formula (the one for determining the mass of planets, for example).  (Since i was not studying for an exam, I could afford to let the occasional formula or calculation pass, and trust that I was getting the bigger picture.  And boy, is there a bigger picture here)!

If you are like me (not an astronomer) the description of the life cycle of a star will blow your ever-loving mind.  Or sections like the following, that, in an attempt to describe how it is that all of the photons left over from the “big bang” came to be pretty much the same temperature due to the conditions of the “Inflationary epoch” of our young universe, explains that:

“…the diameter of the universe expanded from a size roughly a billion times smaller than the diameter of a proton to about the size of a softball.  This increase in volume by a factor of about ten to the fiftieth power (1050) occurred when the universe was only ten to the minus thirty-five seconds old (ten billionths of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second) and lasted until the universe was about ten to the minus thirty-four seconds old (one hundred billionth of billionth of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second).”

So THAT’S why all those photons are the same temperature: they were all formed during a time when the universe was really, really, really small!

(And we’re not even past the first second of our universe’s life, with over 13 billion more years to describe!)

The selection quoted above should give you an idea of what you’re in for with this book.  Expect to spend some time with it (it’s not a fast read).  Having said that, however, it’s a good read: as well and clearly written as any book on this subject could be, I expect.  It’s an enjoyable journey, and worth the effort for the moments of brain-twisting, jaw-dropping awe at the realities of the formation of everything from the carbon that is the basis for life to the origins of the stars, planets and galaxies that populate our expanding universe.

The book takes us step by step from the beginning to the end of the story (literally: the answer to the titular question comes on the very last pages!).  The book does not dawdle, or mess around.  It simply has a lot of ground (space?) to cover.

I recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob