I recently finished a book: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution.
As I’ve noted several times on the science & technology blog BenchPress: I am a sucker for astrophysics. Unlike most areas of scientific inquiry, humans have almost no real capacity to touch or directly measure astronomical phenomena. For phenomena outside our galaxy, its practically inconceivable that humans will ever be able to visit them. Consequently, almost everything we know about our cosmos comes from humans being extremely curious, observant, and resourceful. To me, it’s a sign of the highest form of human technical ingenuity and scientific deduction that we can achieve.
The book Origins is a great exploration of this which, as its title suggests, goes through some of the most deep scientific questions humans can ask: how did the universe come to be? how did the stars come to be? how did the planets come into existence? how did life come into existence? can there be life “out there”?
And given the nature of the questions, who better than People Magazine’s sexiest astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to help answer them? Tyson, in addition to being an accomplished astrophysicist, is one of the public faces of science – oftentimes appearing in the media and on shows like Comedy Central’s Colbert Report and The Daily Show (see below for one of my favorite clips with Tyson):
While the book falls a little bit short of “accessible to every layperson”, for anyone who has taken high school physics and has a passing interest in astronomy, this book is not only very easy to digest, it provides just enough depth that the reader can appreciate that concepts as fantastical as Dark Matter, the cosmic background radiation, and the flatness of the universe have a strong scientific basis built through a series of very reasonable, methodical, and ingenious set of experiments and observations.
As anyone with a real appreciation for science knows: science is much more about the process of discovery – the Eureka’s that oftentimes reveal deep and rigorous insights about the universe and not memorizing textbooks full of equations and “facts”. Rather than present a set of statements about astronomy, Tyson nails presenting that exploration aspect of science. He doesn’t simply say that the Big Bang resulted in a cosmic background radiation of ~2.7K – he points out that a Ukrainian physicist hypothesized that such a radiation existed years before it was possible to measure it and even estimated it at ~5K – amazing considering it was just based on some “back of the envelope” math. Tyson points out that it wasn’t “true” astronomers and physicists who finally built a device capable of measuring the radiation, it was some researchers at Bell Labs who were trying to build a microwave-based communications system and it wasn’t until the “real” astronomers stumbled on a paper that described some bizarre “excess antenna temperature” that seemed to come from “everywhere” that they realized that Bell Labs had inadvertently discovered the best evidence we have for the Big Bang.
If that sort of scientific storytelling in an area as rich and deep as astrophysics is appealing to you, I’d recommend getting the book.