Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour

By Neil deGrasse Tyson, J. Richard Gott

2,030 ratings - 4.27* vote

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERWelcome to the Universe is a personal guided tour of the cosmos by three of today's leading astrophysicists. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all--from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wor A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERWelcome to the Universe is a personal guided tour of the cosmos by three of today's

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Book details

Hardcover, 480 pages
September 29th 2016 by Princeton University Press
Original Title
Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour
ISBN
0691157243 (ISBN13: 9780691157245)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Manny

Let's look at this book. What can we say about it? It's got nearly 500 pages, it's nicely produced, it's got some famous names on the cover. The blurb says it's based on a popular introductory astronomy course the authors gave at Princeton. Well, that tells us something, but it doesn't tell us what we want to know. Is it any good? So let's stop for a moment and think about how we might answer the question. It doesn't really make any sense unless we have something to compare it with. What other books are like that, introductions to astronomy written by experts and aimed at smart laypeople?

So I'm going to start by taking three books that fit the general description, and I'm going to talk a bit about what they're like and how they're organized. I could pick books written recently, but I think that's a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, there aren't a lot of books like this, and second, you don't have any perspective when you take recent stuff. I'm going to take some older books, where we know how things worked out for them from our early twenty-first century point of view. I'm going to look at those books and at the end I'm going to compare them with Welcome to the Universe.

Number one. Here's Exposition du système du monde, by Pierre-Simon de Laplace. Laplace published it in 1796 and it was the most famous pop science book in France for the next century. It's worth reading even today. Next up, Arthur Berry's A Short History of Astronomy. It came out in 1898, and it was still the standard text at the beginning of World War II. And third, Fred Hoyle's Frontiers of Astronomy. It was published in 1955, and it was a major non-fiction bestseller. I read in Alan Lightman's and Roberta Brawer's very nice book Origins that it inspired a whole generation of astrophysicists.

Now all these books are examples of what Welcome to the Universe is trying to give you, a good one-volume summary of modern astronomy. What do we find in them? First of all you're going to get some history. People have been doing astronomy for more than two thousand years. You've got to say something about that, both the things they got right and the things they got wrong. Because when you do science, you always get some things wrong. Later generations of scientists correct the things you got wrong. That's how you make progress. Next, you write about the things scientists have found out recently, the cutting-edge material. Some of your audience will know this stuff but most of them won't. And then you add some bullshit, because scientists are just people and they love to bullshit when they think they can get away with it.

If you look at the three books I just showed you, you can see that they tried to mix up those ingredients a bit differently. Berry is quite conservative. He puts in a lot of history and you can see he's trying not to bullshit you. But sometimes you bullshit without meaning to and he does that quite a lot. He tells you people like Kant once thought that galaxies were huge collections of stars a long way off, but no one takes that seriously any more. He was wrong! 25 years later, Hubble got good pictures of nearby galaxies, and then you could see that they really were huge collections of stars. Kant was right all along. Hoyle is the opposite of Berry. He doesn't give you much history and the last third of the book is nothing but bullshit. He has his own theory, the Steady State theory, of how the universe had no beginning and has always been the same. He makes it sound very convincing. But it was completely wrong. Ten years later they found the Cosmic Background Radiation, and then everyone knew Hoyle's theory was wrong and the Big Bang theory was right.

Laplace's book is remarkable. He has a very good, careful history of astronomy. He gives a terrific overview of Newtonian gravitational theory, which was then cutting-edge, state of the art research. He tells you how it was used to explain the movements of Jupiter and Saturn and the Moon, which are really complicated. They are so complicated that some people thought Newton's gravitational theory was slightly wrong, but Laplace showed it was correct and explains everything. At the end, he has a bullshit section about how the Solar System started. He says he thinks it condensed out of a rotating cloud of gas. This was way past the state of the art in 1796. He was just guessing. But he was right! His bullshit wasn't bullshit, it was prophetic. We can say that now because we know more. Very few people are as smart as Laplace was.

So let's get back to Welcome to the Universe. What's the mix there? There's quite a lot of history. They don't talk much about the ancient history of astronomy, there's nothing about the old Ptolemaic system with the epicycles and the deferents which Laplace and Berry explain in detail, but they do the more recent stuff very well. They tell you how Planck found his radiation formula. They do a really good job of explaining what it means and showing you how it's completely central to modern astrophysics. The same with explaining Maxwell's field equations and Einstein's theories of special and general relativity. I really liked this part. For example, they tell you how general relativity went through several different versions as Einstein was developing it, and how he used a version that wasn't quite right when he did one of his most famous calculations, the one about the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, but luckily it made no difference. There are lots of other good things, like they give the details of how Rømer used eclipses of Jupiter's moons to estimate the speed of light back in 1676. I'll give them an 8 or even a 9 on the history.

Next, the recent stuff. This is also very good. You get a bang up to date tour of the Solar System with lots of new material about Kuiper Belt objects. There's an interesting section on exoplanets. There's lots of material about galaxy formation, showing you how we now know that dark matter and black holes play an essential role. Hoyle's 1955 book had a couple of chapters about galaxies. They sound plausible, but today we can see it was all bullshit. Hoyle didn't know about dark matter and black holes. Welcome to the Universe probably gets it right, we have so much more data now. They have nice material about the LIGO gravitational wave experiment, and how it found a collision between two black holes, and what it means. That's just from last year. Like I said, this book is up to date. I'll give them an 8 or a 9 for the recent stuff too.

And last, the bullshit. To be honest, I think this book has just a bit too much bullshit. I don't mean that in a bad way. Like I said, Hoyle's book has too much bullshit and it was truly inspiring. But I still think this book has too much. There's a very speculative chapter on life in the universe. There's an even more speculative chapter on time travel. They use the time travel when they talk about what possibly came before the Big Bang. Maybe they'll get lucky the way Laplace did and it will turn out that the bullshit is actually correct! But I think that's against the odds. I'm giving them a 6 on the bullshit.

So all in all, I think this is a pretty good book. I'd say it's better than Berry. It's maybe even better than Hoyle. It's not as good as Laplace, but then that would be a miracle. If you're a smart young teen and you think you might want to be an astrophysicist, you should go out and get a copy. Maybe it'll inspire you.

Max

Tyson, Strauss and Gott team up to give us a tutorial on our universe based on an introductory course they taught at Princeton for non-science students. The authors are more than descriptive in their discussions of the stars, planets, galaxies, other objects and phenomena. Using mostly straightforward algebra they show how things such as orbit trajectories, gravitational forces, luminosity and energy levels are calculated. I appreciate their care in explaining the meaning of the various Greek letters they put into their equations. As someone who doesn’t always quickly distinguish a v from a ν (the Greek letter Nu), this was very helpful. This book is more demanding than Tyson’s and Goldsmith’s book Origins which I had read previously and covers much of the same ground. But if you want to understand, at least a little, how scientists figure these things out, this denser version is well worth it. Actually the book still has a lot to offer even if you skim over the equations.

Tyson takes us from the very big to the very small. How big is a billion. He puts it into hamburgers. McDonald’s quit reporting at 99 billion, but Tyson lays out 100 billion end to end. His are four inches wide and two inches high. First put one next to the other and go around the earth 216 times, then with the leftovers stack them to the moon and back to earth again. We eat a lot of burgers. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has 300 billion stars. The universe we can see has 100 billion galaxies and ten sextillion stars and the universe we can’t see is likely much, much bigger. Tyson does similar explanations of the very small which goes just as incredibly far in the opposite direction.

To understand stars we need to understand how they generate energy. This leads to particle physics and quantum mechanics so the relevant topics in these areas are also covered. Scientists can tell what stars and gases in the universe are composed of based on their spectra. The spectra tell us what wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are being absorbed and emitted. Different atoms have different spectra, thus we know if we are witnessing hydrogen, helium or some other atom or molecule. The distribution of elements in stars or their debris and their temperatures tell us a lot about their structure and life cycle. Thus the scientists piece together the ongoing celestial process of star generation, decay and death. But the authors don’t leave it there. They go to the structure of the atom to show why and how light waves are absorbed and emitted to create spectral signatures.

Along the way the authors cover all the hot topics: black holes, the big bang, dark energy and dark matter, eternal inflation, the multiverse and the fate of the one we live in. They even try to get us to understand special and general relativity. They introduce us to string theory and ten-dimensional space-time and explore the possibilities for time travel. There is something for everyone. The book itself is very nicely done with many illustrations, charts graphs and pictures printed on good quality paper. Recommended for those who enjoy popular physics books as well as the general reader who wants a crash course in astrophysics and isn’t put off by equations.

Carlos

Wow, what a read, to be honest this has been the be longest it has taken me to read a nonfiction book (I started it before the date I checked in Goodreads) , also I have to recognize that this book is beyond my capabilities to properly review , all I will say is that this is not an introductory book, this is a very complex and well detailed book about everything encompassing astrophysics. If you are into the subject you will love it , but if you want to read a book about astrophysics because you are merely interested in it then you will struggle.

Brian Clegg

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.

muthuvel

MystaryPi

IT WAS LIKE REALLY REALLY GOOD.I WANT TO BECOME AN ASTROPHYSICIST, AND THIS WAS *ZE* BOOK!!IT COMPLETELY TRIGGERED MY INNER HUNGER AND I ALMOST ATE THE BOOK - THIS IS A *MUST* READ!!! A *MUST*!!!

Leah

From 2+2 to Superstring Theory and beyond...

The preface explains that this book arises from a course run by the three authors at Princeton University – a course on the universe for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. My knowledge of science is pretty basic and my maths is, if anything, even dodgier. So although the idea of the book intrigued me, I feared it might be way over my head.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. The first section is Stars, Planets and Life with Tyson as the main author and a couple of chapters from Strauss. It starts brilliantly for the beginner, with an introduction to the very simplest stuff, like how long it takes for the Earth to revolve on its axis. At this early stage, Tyson assumes no prior knowledge and lays down some terminological groundwork for the more difficult stuff to come later. For example, he explains exactly what an Astronomical Unit is and that it is abbreviated to AU. He's very funny, so that these chapters are entertaining as well as informative.

Each section takes the history of scientific discovery as a template for explaining what scientists know about the universe today and how they know it. All through the book, the authors are careful to credit those who came before, even when subsequent discoveries may have proved them wrong in some aspect. They show how even disproven theories contributed to the advances made by later scientists. There are a couple of chapters in this first section that are very heavy on maths and, truthfully, lost me so badly that I wondered whether there was much point in continuing. But I decided to struggle on and happily discovered that most of the book is perfectly accessible even to those of us whose eyes glaze over at any equation more complex than 2+2=4. On the other hand, there's loads of very well explained maths in there for anyone whose mind works that way, or who wants to get a feel for whether they would like to study astrophysics at higher levels perhaps.

Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. It's fascinating stuff and made me realise how often popular science books just tell the reader something and expect us to accept it. Not this one – every statement is backed up with detail of how we know these things and what they mean in the broader context of the universe. Throughout, the book is superbly illustrated, not just with pretty pictures (though most of them are) but with clear, beautifully designed and explained diagrams and charts that are hugely helpful in understanding the text and visualising things like size comparisons. This section finishes with a chapter on the search for planets that could support life, explaining exactly what scientists are looking for and why, and how they're going about it.

Strauss takes over as the main author for the second section on Galaxies. He takes the reader through the history of how our own galaxy was first mapped and then the discoveries that led to scientists realising that the Milky Way is only a tiny part of the universe. This section has some fantastic images from the various exploratory missions like Hubble, but the really great thing is that Strauss explains in detail what we're actually seeing – how to interpret the images rather than just admiring them. He then goes on to explain the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. There is a fair amount of maths again in this section, but I found it easy to ignore for the most part while still grasping the concepts Strauss describes.

The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein's relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond. I hold my hands up – it's at Einstein that my brain always closes down and I find myself overwhelmed with an urgent desire to giggle, somewhat hysterically. However, Gott actually explained the whole E = mc2 thing well enough for me to more or less grasp, plus for the first time I now kinda understand why nuclear bombs work (not sure of the usefulness of that knowledge, but you never know when it might come in handy). His explanation of black holes and spaghettification is both humorous and clear.

He then takes us through all the stuff that sound more like Star Trek plots than science (to my limited mind) – cosmic strings, wormholes, time travel, superstring theory, inflation, etc. While I'll never fully grasp this stuff and retain a large degree of cynicism about a lot of it, Gott's explanations are great, and hugely enhanced by some of the best and clearest diagrams I've come across, including a spectacular six-page spread in full colour showing Gott's own map of the universe. He finishes with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang, and shows how these (crazy-sounding) ideas arise out of the most recent science, while making very clear which bits have been confirmed by observation missions and which haven't yet. Fascinating stuff! His final plea is for Earth to look quickly at colonising Mars to increase our species' chances of longterm survival.

This is a great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I've come across. It seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy. Highly recommended, but do get the hardback rather than the Kindle – it's beautifully designed and produced, and the illustrations are an essential aid to understanding the text.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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Jafar

This is probably the best pop-physics book that I've read. A great summary of modern astrophysics (and physics in general) plus a lot of good history.

Crystal Starr Light

Bullet Review:I finally finished! WOOT! What an amazing read - even if the quantum stuff started sailing over my head. So many nostalgic memories of me going to the library and desperately looking for the one astronomy book I hadn’t read.Maybe a full review later.

Matt

This book is an overview of modern cosmology, with explanations of things ranging from Newtonian physics to the Big Bang to string theory and the slow death of the universe. It is basically a distillation of the ideas the authors presented in an entry-level general course at Princeton. Much of it is familiar territory, but there are also in-depth explanations that are simultaneously challenging and accessible.

The ideas and concepts discussed are interesting, but the explanations are often tedious. It can be especially frustrating when the authors treat a particular chapter like a mystery novel - laying out all the evidence before explaining what they're driving at. Done well, that could be an interesting technique. In this book, there were multiple instances of extended analogies before the concept they were analyzing was presented. I found that this occasionally required re-reading passages to pick up on the nuances.

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