Cosmic Queries – A Review


Cosmic Queries is a new book written by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and James Trefil and published by National Geographic. Find out how this book balances education and entertainment in a highly readable volume.

Science has a problem. We’ve assigned all the big questions of life to scientists. Still, we haven’t developed an effective way for specialists in scientific fields to tell their stories to everyday people.

 Everyone feels a sense of wonder when they think about the grandeur of our Universe. As a result, we’ve all asked ourselves some fundamental questions from time to time.

I mean questions like, “What is our place in the Universe?” “Are we alone in the Universe?” “How did it all begin?”

Humanity Relied on Storytellers

These questions go all the way back to prehistoric times. Up until the modern era, humanity relied on storytellers to provide the answers to these perennial questions.

I’ve always had a knack for telling stories but no particular aptitude for actually doing science. I’ve never had the orderliness for experimentation or the patience to learn the intricacies of the math correctly.

It seems to me that the reverse is often true for many scientists. They excel at making their observations and creating models to represent them. Still, they’re often not the best person to communicate what their findings mean to the rest of us.

Not the Best Person to Communicate

Of course, there have always been exceptions. Einstein aimed his book Relativity at a general audience, and it’s highly accessible. Many of the best science communicators have taken a stab at explaining his work. Even so, I’ve never read anyone who did a better job at outlining his models in simple terms than the genius himself.

Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Some other scientists-turned-communicators have also influenced my appreciation for the Universe over the years.

First of all, two of my university professors fit that bill. They were geologist Henry Halls and astronomer John Percy. 

Science for Non-Scientist Courses

They both had the patience to teach “science for non-scientist” courses in their respective fields. Since I needed two science credits, I am very thankful they made themselves available in this way.

For me, two other influential books have been Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Hawkings’ estate published the latter book posthumously.

In the 21st century, Neil DeGrasse Tyson seems to be the new scientist-turned-communicator torchbearer. He starred in a sequel to Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking Cosmos miniseries.

Talk Show Called StarTalk

He also hosts an in-demand podcast/multi-platform talk show called StarTalk. The most popular segment on this program is called Cosmic Queries. In it, he provides plain-language answers to listeners’ questions.

National Geographic published a book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson under the StarTalk title. They’ve now released a sequel in a question-and-answer format, building on the Cosmic Queries brand.

Tyson explains the reason for the new book this way. “There’s not always time to explore the deepest questions that come our way…For that, you need a book – conceived, organized and written using the informative but still breezy DNA of StarTalk itself.

Chapters Relate to “Deepest Questions”

To that end, Tyson and his co-author James Trefil set out ten chapters, each corresponding to one of these “deepest questions.” They’re all topics we also delve into at Dare to Know to find the new story that humanity needs to make sense of our lives.

In addition to the three questions set out above, other chapters range from “How Old is the Universe?” to “What is Life”” to “How Will It All End?” Tyson and Trefil don’t claim to have all the answers.

The tone is undoubtedly conversational. Even so, Tyson’s use of the term “breezy” strikes me as self-deprecating. Like all successful science communicators, the authors express themselves in plain language and adhere to a strict equation-free policy.

Express Themselves in Plain Language

Here’s an example of the writing style. “If you know in advance the rate at which a star is emitting energy, then by using a simple formula, you can calculate how far away that star is by measuring how bright or dim it happens to look at the distance you find it.”

Could there be a more straightforward explanation of what astronomers call the “standard candle?” On page after page, I found myself asking, “why can’t other writers express ideas this clearly?”

The authors also take some delight in depicting some of the historical luminaries of science as regular guys. For example, the book opens by imagining Newton and Aristotle debating in a barroom.

Luminaries of Science as Regular Guys

They also share the ribald tale of Tycho Brahe and a fellow student fighting a duel after a drunken argument about who was better at math. Unfortunately, history tells us that Tycho lost the tip of his nose in that encounter.

Some readers will find these asides refreshing, while others may find them distracting. Either way, it’s all in keeping with the StarTalk spirit from which the book is drawn. It would be odd if the book didn’t contain the odd light-hearted digression.

Science has lifted humanity to new heights. Yet, it’s also deprived us of a few things.

Stories to Make Sense Of Their Lives

For most of the modern era, groups have felt that science has taken away the stories by which they made sense of their lives. However, the groundbreaking discoveries of our century offer us a more profound, more meaningful, fact-based tale than we’ve ever had before.

By putting those discoveries in context and explaining them in everyday language, Tyson and Trefil have made an essential contribution to that process. I highly recommend this informative and readable book to all our readers.

They write, “Therein lies the true source of curiosity and wonder; the not knowing–coupled with its only antidote, the need to know.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more

Cosmic Queries
StarTalk
Origins
Lost in Math
The View from the Center of the Universe

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