The Human Cosmos

The Human Cosmos coverThe Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars
Jo Marchant
Dutton (September 1, 2020), 399 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.21

The Human Cosmos is a look at how humankind has looked at the heavens through the ages.

The author describes how the earliest civilizations tracked the movement in the sky and how a king’s astronomers could help him solidify his power. The ability to predict an eclipse could reinforce his legitimacy, while an error could make him vulnerable.

The book goes on to follow human achievements in astronomy through classical, medieval, and early modern times. Marchant describes how observing the cosmos influenced the transition from the American colonies to the new United States. Oddly, the author goes off on a tangent recounting the events of the American and French revolutions, the only connection seemingly being that Thomas Paine used some of Newton’s principles in his writing.

But when she returns to the world of astronomy the book gets interesting again. She describes the current science and shows how a meteorite found in Antarctica turned out to be a chunk that was blown off of Mars. She also talks about pulsars and writes about the desire of many to believe that the signals occurring at precisely timed intervals were artificial and the creation of an intelligent source out there. So far, most of the signals seem to be natural events, emitting from rapidly spinning stars near the end of their life cycles. She does tantalize us, however, by saying a couple of the detected signals have not been adequately explained.

If you enjoy astronomy and/or the history of science you will like The Human Cosmos.

Until the End of Time

Until the End of Time coverUntil the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Brian Greene
Knopf (February 18, 2020), 416 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $19.89

Brian Greene is a working physicist who is also well-known for writing popular books on science. Until the End of Time is his latest. I read a couple of very positive reviews of this book when it first came out and was intrigued enough to purchase it.

Green covers a variety of topics, including entropy, evolution (both biological and non-biological), quantum physics, the big bang and the earliest days of the universe, and the ultimate fate of the universe, which scientists now generally see as continued expansion until there is nothing there.

Greene is an excellent writer when it comes to popularizing science; he is clear, concise, and witty. He certainly knows his stuff, and the work is well-annotated. There is a lot of interesting material here and I learned a few things that I didn’t know before. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed: I came away without any new insights about the search for meaning.

appreciating PBS

I don’t give enough love to PBS. The PBS stations I get on my cable system are part of my channel surfing rotation, but I haven’t sat down and watched that many complete programs.

That changed recently. I have watched two outstanding series.

PBS logoThe science program Nova Wonders was designed for younger people, but as I approach eligibility for Medicare I was fascinated, Hosted by three scientists, all of them people of color and two of them women, the show looked at biology, genetics, astronomy, communication, and other topics. All fascinating stuff.

Then there is Civilizations (note the plural). Each episode has a different take on art, starting with prehistoric art and moving up to the present day. This is not your classic Western Civilization course. The West gets plenty of attention, but so does China, Japan, India, and the Islamic World. The episode on the renaissance used the plural on its title and covered not only Italy but the Islamic renaissance as well.

There’s lots of good stuff on PBS. It deserves more of my attention.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

DarkMatterandDinosaursDark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Lisa Randall
Ecco Books, sold by HarperCollins Publishers
October 27, 2015, 437 pages
Kindle edition $14.99,  Amazon hardcover $20.61

I love Lisa Randall’s work. I very much enjoyed Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which told the story of the Large Hadron Collider. Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs was an equally engaging tale.

Randall discusses a lot of different, yet related, topics in this book. She tells us about dark matter, dark energy, the objects orbiting in the distant (and still theoretical, not yet directly observed) Oort cloud, impacts on earth by meteors and comets, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. There is a lot of material here and I won’t attempt to summarize it. I’ll simply say that she ties together dark matter and the dinosaurs by suggesting that there is a measurable periodicity to celestial objects hitting earth, that this periodicity may be influenced by a dark matter disk, and the extinction of the dinosaurs was likely caused by an object or objects hitting earth governed by that periodicity.

Randall draws heavily on her own research as well as that of others. She does a great job in discussing the rigors of the scientific method and her intent to maintain that discipline. I am impressed by her ability to be both an academic research scientist and a popularizer of science. And oh, she even shares a photo of herself in a non-speaking cameo role on the Big Bang Theory.

Good stuff here.

origins of the elements

I was never very good at chemistry. In addition, chemistry class my junior year in high school was not a lot of fun. The teacher was heading towards the end of his career, and, in my view at the time, experiencing a case of burnout. He used all of his sick days (or so it seemed) and as he was the head of A-V at the school, he was able to and often did show us films that had nothing to do with chemistry.

Nevertheless, I have always found the periodic table of the elements to be fascinating. I was pleased to see, courtesy of the good folks at Astronomy Picture of the Day, this non-traditional version of the periodic table which shows the origins of each element.

Interesting stuff.


thoughts on cosmology

I try hard to keep this straight in my mind: what is the difference between dark matter and dark energy?

If I have paid proper attention to public radio’s Science Friday, I think I have a handle on this. Dark matter accounts for the missing matter of the universe, based on astronomers’ calculations. Dark energy accounts for the expansion of the universe.

In her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (review coming when I’ve finished it) author Lisa Randall points out that dark energy is uniform throughout the universe, but dark matter is lumpy, existing in different consistencies in different places.

There was a time when cosmologists thought that the expanding universe would snap back and create in essence a new Big Bang. Very consistent with Hindu cosmology.

More recent thinking, as I understand it, says that there is not enough energy to do that. Rather, the universe will keep expanding until it cools off into nothingness. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Depressing, except for the fact that we won’t be around to see which theory is correct.

And in any case, we have more pressing matters to address here and now. While the drought is perhaps abating in the northern part of California, it is still an unpleasant reality here in the Southland.

Then there’s that presidential election of 2016.

Waiting, Linda Ellerbee, for you to say, “And so it goes.”

it’s rarely either/or

dinosaurThe scientific community has long accepted the theory that an asteroid that hit the earth was the cause for the demise of the dinosaurs. But a more recent competing theory has emerged. Perhaps it was volcanic activity. Once that debate arises you have to look at the possibility that maybe it’s both. And maybe the asteroid triggered the volcanic activity.

It’s rarely either/or.

A fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times discusses all this:
The Death of the Dinosaurs

Good reading. Enjoy!

big history

I thought I was pretty familiar with the offerings available from The Great Courses, so I was surprised when an article in the New York Times Magazine made me aware of a course with which I was not acquainted: Big History. (If you click the link don’t freak out at the price. It will be on sale again at about 70% off the list price sooner or later. They cycle through all their courses with such pricing.)

BigHistoryThe occasion of the NYT Magazine article was to discuss how Bill Gates had watched the course, met the instructor, David Christian, and proceeded to work with him to develop a high school curriculum based on the college-level course Christian had been teaching. I was intrigued enough to buy the audio version of the Great Courses program, which, probably not coincidentally, happened to be on sale at the time. The premise of the course is that most history courses cover only the period from the beginning of writing, or slightly before, to the present day, and that omits the greater part of the history of the universe. Big History teams with science to provide a much more expansive story of the universe.

Christian divides the history of the universe into eight “Thresholds:”

  1. Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
  2. The First Stars and Galaxies
  3. Making Chemical Elements
  4. The Earth and the Solar System
  5. Life
  6. What Makes Humans Different?
  7. Agriculture
  8. The Modern Revolution

This means that our species Homo sapiens does not show up until lecture 21 of the 48 lecture course. But that is appropriate in the context of the material being covered.

The course has not been revised since it was initially published in 2008. For the most part it holds up well, but some of the material is dated. For example, Christian categorically states that humans never interbred with Neanderthals, something we now know from genetic evidence absolutely did happen (and that humans are probably stronger and healthier for it). Six years is an eternity in modern science.

Christian has some different views and perspectives that you probably have not heard before. Whether you listen to this course on your iPod while out walking (as I did) or whether you sit down in front of your TV or computer to watch the DVD version, Big History is time well spent. (Or will be once the course goes on sale again.)

they were flying for us

The good folks over at EarthSky reminded me that last Tuesday, 28 January was the anniversary of the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was in my office at the San Jose Metro newspaper when the publisher’s wife, who worked at the paper a day or two a week, said, “The shuttle exploded.” I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle exploded?”

I turned on KCBS news radio and learned exactly what that meant. I listened to the coverage on NPR on the way home to Redwood City on the train. It was only after I got home that I saw the frightening video.

Saturday 1 February was the anniversary of the day in 2003 that the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry. Interestingly, that day in 2003 was a Saturday as well. Terry and I slept late as we normally do on Saturday and had a leisurely breakfast. Chances are that we listened to West Coast Live via the Web. After breakfast Terry got on the computer and while surfing the Web said to me “The shuttle broke apart.”

I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle broke apart?”

We remember, respect, and appreciate those brave souls who died fulfilling their passion. They were truly flying for us.

Einstein and the Quantum

EinsteinEinstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian
A. Douglas Stone
339 pages
Princeton University Press (October 6, 2013)
Kindle Edition  $16.17, Amazon Hardcover  $22.41

This book got great reviews when it first was published, and Ira Flatow of Science Friday (formerly produced by  National Public Radio, now distributed by Public Radio International) made a point of calling it out as one of the best science books of 2013. I was somewhat disappointed.

There is a lot of history in this book. There is the story of Einstein’s early career, and his interactions with the likes of Max Planck, on whose work he built. Stone describes Einstein’s contentious relationship with his professors, and how that hindered his academic career. There’s an account of how Einstein made it through the First World War, and his having to deal with anti-Semitism in Germany during the years after.

There is also a lot of physics here: formulas and theories. That is something I don’t follow well, and while Stone tries to make these concepts clear for the general reader, they were not as clear as they might be. I’ve read books by other popularizers of physics who did a better job of making such concepts clear.

Einstein contributed much to the foundation of quantum theory before his famous statement that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  What left me unsatisfied at the end of the book was that I did not have a clear picture where Einstein last contributed to quantum theory and where he abandoned it. But then, maybe there is no such clear division. The book suggests that he simply moved on to other topics that grabbed his interest. As the “new quantum theory” was developed, its emphasis on the random and uncertain, did not, I surmise, sit well with Einstein.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in Einstein’s early and, to a lesser extent, middle years, there’s plenty here to keep your attention.