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Origins

by Neil deGrasse Tyson, 2004

Review is copyright 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2016.05.27



Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
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.)
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Summary


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 overcome.

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 book.

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.


Conclusion


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.








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