Book Report: Origins

Published March 8, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Whew, finally finished reading this one!  Took me almost two weeks, and just in the nick of the time, as it’s due back at the library today!  (Important note, of course, is that I’m actually writing this last night.)  Anyway, I started reading this in February, wanting to pick something that seemed appropriate for Black History Month but not really coming up with anything that really grabbed me.

Then I had a brilliant idea.  (As Mr. Smee would say, lightning struck my brain.)  Challenge #6 is “A book about nature.”  Something is “nature” if it is natural, that is, not made by humanity.  Space is natural, therefore it is nature.  And Neil DeGrasse Tyson is African-American as well as one of the most awesome people currently living, so one of his books on space would both answer the challenge and be appropriate February reading.  Therefore…

Of the ones available at the county library system, this seemed like the one that was the best combination of being “about nature” and being interesting without being too difficult for someone like myself without any particular scientific background knowledge.  (Introductory biology and chemistry were a looooooong time ago…)  The one that actually sounded like the read I’d most enjoy, unfortunately, was ruled out right off the bat, because it was about the history of man’s fascination with/attempts to pursue spaceflight.  (Or something like that.)

Anyway, in one respect, my casual use of Goodreads to select a book steered me wrong on this one.  Specifically, I didn’t look too closely where it talked about the publication date.  I saw the date 2014 and thought “oh, nice, it’s pretty recent,” without noticing that right below that it said “originally published in 2004”.  And, of course, the library’s copy was a first edition.  So it was a bit out of date, which was particularly noticeable when it was talking about a space probe that had just reached Saturn’s moon Titan, but its pictures hadn’t arrived back yet.  (Thankfully, I was able to look up the results on Wikipedia.)

All that aside, let me get back to the subject of the book itself, setting aside the datedness of some of the material (which would be much less dated in the second edition from ten years later).  The purpose of this book is to outline everything currently known and theorized about the entire history of the universe, from its beginnings to the present day, and to do so in a way that laymen can read and understand it.  The authors aren’t coy about admitting that there are things science still hasn’t figured out yet, most of those things centering around, well, origins:  the origin of the universe (yes, the Big Bang was a thing, but why and what came before it?) and the origin of life being the two biggest question marks.

So, do they achieve what they set out to do?  The answer is both a big “yes” and also a moderately loud “no.”

Yes, they absolutely cover the whole of time, and rarely resort to formulae to explain things.  But I still got confused by a lot of the early material.  Several of the early chapters relied heavily on the knowledge that in the right circumstances, particles (of matter and anti-matter) would simply pop into existence (and then most of them popped right back out again when they collided and canceled each other out) but there’s no explanation of where they came from or how the spontaneously generated like that.  Now, apparently it’s known for a fact that they do simply appear like that, as it would seem that it’s been replicated in laboratory tests (in particle accelerators, as far as I could tell).  But that doesn’t explain the why or the how.  They probably don’t know, but that was one of the few places where the authors didn’t outright say “yeah, scientists still haven’t reached any consensus on the explanation for this one.”

That wasn’t the only place where I could understand what they were saying but completely couldn’t wrap my head around how what they were saying could be and/or how anyone could have figured it out.  Most of those moments took place in the first section, though, where the focus of things was more or less entirely on particle physics as applied to the early era of the cosmos.  Once the narrative(?) got to the point where there were stars and planets, I was able to follow pretty well, for the most part.

The overall tone was light, trying to inject a little humor to keep it from being a dry scientific textbook.  It was also surprisingly human, as the authors rarely mentioned a discovery or theory without naming the person(s) responsible, leading to the mention of a lot of people who would probably normally be ignored.

Sometimes the light tone led to “wait, what did you just say?” moments.  Like in the part where they were trying to explain that it’s hard to combine protons “because protons naturally repel one another,” because they have the same electrical charge.  They go on to say this, after describing how non-charged neutrons can join up without difficulty:

For some elements, the freshly captured neutron proves to be unstable once it joins the nucleus.  In that case, the neutron spontaneously converts itself into a proton (which stays put in the nucleus), and an electron (which escapes immediately.)  In this way, like the Greek soldiers who breached the walls of Troy by hiding inside a wooden horse, protons can sneak into a nucleus in the guise of neutrons.

I don’t even know how to react to that, you know?  As someone who has from time to time been downright obsessed with the Trojan War (it’s been in remission for a while now, but I can’t help perking up at mentions of it), I’m particularly vexed by my own uncertainty regarding my own feelings about the Trojan Horse, and I always look with curiosity to see how others react to it when they apply any thought to the matter (rather than simply taking the story at face value).  So what does it mean if it’s suddenly become a metaphor for the creation of complex elements?  Am I to take it that pre-literate Greeks somehow gained a deep insight into how the universe worked?  Or am I reading way the heck too much into it?  (Probably the latter…)

Changing topics a bit, do you ever do that thing where your eye unconsciously drags across the new page as you’re turning it, and you read a bit of a line that you’re not ready for yet?  I have a terrible tendency to do that, and this time…man, where do I begin?  The actual sentence was

If Mars spawned life before Earth did, and if simple life traveled from Mars on ejected rocks and seeded Earth, we may all be descendants of Martians.

Pretty interesting thought, but what caught my eye, unfortunately, was two of the words, which were both on the same line in the book.  (Due screen sizes and resolutions, no idea if they’re on the same line as you’re looking at them.)  But in a single line, my eye dragged backwards from “seeded” and then misread the description of the rocks as “ejaculated”…which makes perfect sense coming from “seeded,” right?  I mean, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of freaky pervert, right?  Right?


One last quote I want to share with you:

In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a fourteen-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho, conducted a now famous (among science popularizers) science fair experiment to test antitechnology sentiments and associated chemical phobia.  Zohner invited people to sign a petition that demanded either strict control or a total ban of dihydrogen monoxide.  He listed some of the odious properties of this colorless and odorless substance:

  • It is a major component in acid rain
  • It eventually dissolves almost anything it comes in contact with
  • It can kill if accidentally inhaled
  • It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
  • It has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Forty-three out of fifty people approached by Zohner signed the petition, six were undecided, and one was a great supporter of the molecule and refused to sign.  Yes, 86 percent of the passersby voted to ban dihydrogen monoxide (H²0) from the environment.

Um, yikes?  Also, someone please tell me that those forty-three people are not registered to vote.  (BTW, I’m aware that the 2 should be subscript, not superscript, but I couldn’t find a way to do that.  And I thought the superscript looked slightly less wrong than just writing H2O with everything the same size.  (LOL, now I’m thinking of how my brother (and apparently large chunks of the Internet) insist on referring to a certain 20th anniversary sequel as “Halloween Water”.))

Anyway, before I move on, let me just sum up by saying that there was a lot of really fascinating information here, even if I couldn’t quite follow all of it, but if you’re going to read it, don’t repeat my mistake:  make sure you get the 2014 edition.

After spending such a long time on something so heavy, I’m going to read something short and (hopefully) light next.  Specifically, I’ll be going after one of the remaining comic book challenges.  So you’ll probably be hearing about it tomorrow.

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