The night before my wife’s surgery, she caught me reading Chris Impey’s How It Ends: From You to the Universe. She was a little concerned, but it wasn’t about her. Honest.
Professor Impey’s third popular science (PopSci) book (I’ve not read the other two) combines musings on the end of things, mainly biological or astronomical. As for the first, some interesting stuff on the philosophy of death, actuarial tables, long-lived animals, DNA, and such. Did you know, for example, that if you live in Manhattan and decide to drive over to Jersey to buy a lottery ticket, you are seventeen times more likely to die in an auto accident getting there than you are to hit the jackpot?
You would think that an astronomer’s passion would be for astronomy, not biology, and the final two-thirds of the book, where he gets into his passion, is superior to the talk about how it ends for a human body. So I enjoyed the talk about asteroid hits, comet collisions, the death of the sun, moving the Earth to a safe distance from the red giant phase, and the final era of the universe.
I have a science background and most of the nonfiction I read is scientific, so I don’t really care for dumbed-down reading material. (I avoid things to the third-grade side of Scientific American or NatGeo.) So this book was good for the general public that it contained no serious mathemetical equations, and is a generally readable and fascinating account of “how it ends.”
A very enjoyable read earlier this week was Cosmic Butterflies: The Colorful Mysteries of Planetary Nebulae. Dr Kwok’s book has a confectionary shop full astronomical of eye-candy, especially from the various space telescopes out there. He combines the science of the end of stars with a good helping of history–how astronomers gradually came to understand these beautiful objects over decades and a few centuries of observation.
Planetary nebulae came to this name because many of them looked to similar to Uranus and other planets as viewed through a telescope. They are the outgassing of stars as they transition from the red giant phase to the white dwarf existence. Not only are they beautiful to behold, but they give clues to the chemistry of the universe, including how human beings got here and where many of the atoms of our bodies may have originated.
I can imagine this book being narrated while dozens of illustrative images catch attention. It’s easy enough to compare the pictures with the actual descriptions and explanations in the text. So while this could be just another coffee table book, the blending of intellectual probing into the history of astronomy makes for fascinating reading. Skeptics of science would do well to read this book just to get a glimpse of how the society of science really works.
My next read is about Antarctica. I’ll tell you about that in a few days. Meanwhile, Happy Winter.