Full Title: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years Of Cosmic Evolution Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith Year: 2004 (mine was 2014 paperback) Genre: Nonfiction, Science Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-35039-5 (U.S.) View It On Amazon View It On Google Books
One of today’s more well-known scientists, astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse
Tyson’s 2004 book Origins is an introduction to a “new synthesis of knowledge”,
drawn from a variety of scientific fields to answer the question “Where did we come
from?” Written in the comfortable, easy-going style that is Tyson’s trademark as a
“science communicator”, the book impressively takes the reader from the instant
after the Big Bang all the way through today, along with some informed speculation of the future of
science and humanity.
What I Liked Least About It
I found very little to dislike about this book. If encouraged to nitpick, I would point out two
very minor flaws: (1) some concepts were repeated at times, almost as if the book was originally
written as several separate essays and later cobbled together, and (2) a few of the concepts were
out of my grasp — though this cannot be the fault of the authors. The latter, I attribute
to my own lack of scientific education, which I’ve spent the last few years trying to
My brain stuck on passages like the following, which I found myself rereading multiple times,
sometimes moving on without fully understanding:
“During the hadron era, photons could no longer invoke E = mc² to manufacture
quark-antiquark pairs: their E could not cover the pairs’ mc². In
addition, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations continued to lose
energy to the ever-expanding universe, so their energies eventually fell below the threshold
required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. Every billion annihilations left a billion photons
in their wake — and only a single hadron survived, mute testimony to the tiny excess of
matter over antimatter in the early universe.”
What I Liked Most About It
There is a lot to like about this book. Perhaps my favorite is that Tyson not only tells the
reader what science has discovered about the universe, but also how it was
discovered. This is a step beyond most science reporting, where you might see: “Scientists
Discover 10 New Planets”, leaving the reader with the faulty impression that these planets
were visually observed, perhaps with a telescope. Tyson explains the exact methods used, and even
how those methods were arrived at in the first place.
Secondly, but still very likable, is the sheer sense of wonder and excitement that Tyson clearly
feels about his chosen profession and science in general.
“We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even
say that the universe has empowered us, here in our small corner of the cosmos, to figure itself
out. And we have only just begun.”
Additionally, I liked that a “Glossary Of Selected Terms” was provided at the end.
Many of the terms used in the book were explained at first mention, but more than once I
encountered the terms again and wished for a precise definition. There they were, at the end of the
Fourthly, I greatly enjoyed Tyson’s willingness to say “we still don’t
know” in places where there is truly no scientific consensus, or where observations have
still not been confirmed. On still-contentious topics, Tyson presents various viewpoints among
scientists, including explaining why there are still various viewpoints, and often also
mentions what it would take to bring about a consensus.
On A Personal Note
Tyson grew up in the Bronx, just a few miles from where my wife grew up. He is a graduate of the
Bronx High School Of Science, the same high school from which my wife graduated. And at least
part of his ancestry can be traced to the West Indies, the same as my wife’s.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s not already a scientist. Tyson is one of the
few public faces of science today, often called a “science popularizer”, and he’s
good at his job. He brings often complex and difficult topics into the mainstream media arena
and this book is part of that effort. Even if you dislike him because he’s (at least
partially) responsible for reclassifying Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, this book is
worth the read.