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Tag along on an awe-inspiring journey through the cosmos

Welcome to the Universe

J. Richard Gott, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss
Princeton University Press
2016
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“Every time we make an argument that we’re special in the cosmos … we learn that the opposite is true. In fact, we occupy a humble corner of the galaxy, which occupies its own humble corner in the universe.” The grand size and scale of the cosmos is one of the recurring themes of Welcome to the Universe.

Written by three astrophysicists—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott—the book is based on a course the authors cotaught for several years at Princeton University. It is organized into three sections—the first (Stars, planets, and life) largely belongs to Tyson, the second (Galaxies) to Strauss, and the third (Einstein and the universe) to Gott. Along the way, the reader is taken on a journey from relatively familiar territory—the organization of the solar system and galaxies and the life cycles of stars—through discussions of the Big Bang and the early universe and into recent hypotheses about the future of the universe and our little corner of it.

It is easy to imagine these authors presenting their chapters as lectures to introductory students. All three write in informal, conversational tones, and the text is sprinkled with genuinely funny non sequiturs, such as a brief rumination on dwarfs versus dwarves and commentary on English-speaking aliens in Star Trek.

“In the universe, we're always looking back in time,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson in Welcome to the Universe.ESA/HUBBLE

“In the universe, we’re always looking back in time,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson in Welcome to the Universe.

At the same time, the casual reader may find it difficult to follow some of the book’s quantitative arguments, which are largely presented in the narrative rather than being set apart. In these instances, pulling out pencil and paper may help. In addition, in some sections the authors assume prior knowledge of concepts familiar only to those who have had some introduction to modern physics.

What this book does very well is to present not just what we know about the universe but how we know it. The chapter “Why Pluto is not a planet” is particularly good at showing how our organization of knowledge about the universe changes as that knowledge grows. The last third of the book does a wonderful job of presenting some very complex theories, such as inflation and density fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation.

Despite the almost incomprehensible vastness and complexity of the universe, Tyson’s observation that understanding astrophysics can be empowering resonates. “No, I don’t feel small,” he writes. “I feel large, because the human brain … figured this stuff out.”

About the author

The reviewer is dean of the college and in the Department of Physics at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708, USA.