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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review: Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is such a great title that even if it hadn't been written by Neil de Grasse Tyson I would have checked it out. As it was I figured it would be worth a laugh if nothing else.

The book turns out to be a collection of columns from Natural History magazine, and most of them have nothing to do with black holes. Unlike books that were written with an objective in mind, the book just divides the columns into seven different sections and then organizes them with a curated order so that they're not jarring. But unfortunately, that means that many individual "chapters" are repetitive of one another, and he never gets into anything that can't be done within a couple of thousand words. As a result, the book gets quite tiresome in places, and probably could have been a hundred pages shorter if more effort had been put into it.

The book is probably at its best when it explains science to the lay person:
Science is occasionally accused of being a closed-minded or stubborn enterprise. Often people make such accusations when they see scientists swiftly discount astrology, the paranormal, Sasquatch sightings, and other areas of human interest that routinely fail double-blind tests or that possess a dearth of reliable evidence. But don’t be offended. Scientists apply this same level of skepticism to ordinary claims in the professional research journals. The standards are identical. Look what happened when the Utah chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed in a press conference to have created “cold” nuclear fusion on their laboratory table. Scientists acted swiftly and skeptically. Within days of the announcement it was clear that no one could replicate the cold fusion results that Pons and Fleischmann claimed. Their work was summarily dismissed. (Kindle Loc 4688)
The question though, is that is the lay person likely to read Natural History magazine? Anyway, some of the less relevant (non-black hole) stuff was fun to read, like when he criticized James Cameron in person for the night sky in the the movie, Titanic:
So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, “The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!” (Kindle Loc 4426)
Yet later on the director's crew called him and asked him to help fix the night sky for a remastered edition of the movie.

So, the book wasn't a total waste of time, just not as interesting (or as short) as it could have been. Mildly recommended. Would have been a better match for paper books, so people could look at the cover and say, "Wow, cool title!"

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