Friday, September 13, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Death by Black Hole": Book Review

After a hundred reviews, what can mine add? I've finished Dion Graham's audiobook version. Having seen Neil deGrasse Tyson on "The Colbert Report" promoting his newest book last week, he has the ability to charm audiences with his own wit and knowledge. I wondered why he did not read this audiobook, but Graham's delivery shares its author's talents at getting across to listeners the often challenging (how can it not be?) material of daunting astrophysics--for the rest of us.

As previous comments tend to focus on the printed version, and only a few allude to the audiobook, I'll elaborate a bit. I'd finished the admirable Michael Pritchard's patrician, assured recital of a book nearly twice this length, 19 discs of Brian Greene's 2004 "The Fabric of the Cosmos," recommended to me by a friend who has an interest in astronomy and who's a poet. She admired Greene's ability to use metaphor to simplify complexity. While Greene's book is far more ambitious than Tyson's, both translate advanced research and correct what we think we know about science as it tackles the mysteries to make them less so all around--and especially above--us. Their delight in the stars reminded me of childhood wonder.

Similarly, I found Tyson's approach understandable for myself, who has read far more poetry than physics. Tyson's cleverness, as others note, in this essay collection of 42 articles lightly edited and arranged as the preface explains, tends to delight many and make a few weary of his repeated anecdotes and often, I admit, one-liners and asides, half-great half-groaners.

Tyson prefers a conversational, casual approach. It can ramble, but part of this style can be attributed or blamed on its origins as magazine columns.A few jokes repeat and a few anecdotes do too. Still, anyone who can sum up the vagaries of what's "between our legs" as "an entertainment complex built next to a sewage system" (this book does cover a lot of ground, this analogy in the end section about God vs. Science!) deserves acclaim. Unfortunately, the audiobook skipped at one of its best parts: when Tyson "corrects" movie mistakes about science.

Graham's delivery is entertaining, too, but he does mispronounce some words repeatedly. Yet, in his likable tones and steady but somewhat wry pitch, he is well suited for the role, overall. There's a dash of the vaudeville comedian or talk-show performer in Tyson's style, and this has its advantages when getting across funny or silly moments, which feature far less in more serious elucidations such as Greene's! However, I found I could follow both astronomers with interest, on my commute. "Death by Black Hole" did drift, as with Greene (where I expected it) into spectography and the history of science more than I'd anticipated, but Tyson argues that radio astronomy and spectral studies merit as much popularization as do the more familiar imagery of the (doctored for our eyes) Hubble Space Telescope's observations.

Some [Amazon US] reviewers were upset by the polemical shift in the closing section, but given my own classroom experience, I found Tyson's advocacy of not a "God in the gaps" via "intelligent design" as sensible. He rises to rhetorical flourishes, rather than one-liners, in a conclusion advocating a fearless, rational, and logical approach refusing to give over to a Creator what we humans cannot figure out on our own. I predict, after reading or hearing this, most of his audience will agree. (Amazon US 3-2-2012)

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