A Book That Demystifies the Cosmos
Professor Charles Liu writes about the history of the universe so everyone can understand it.
At the moment of the Big Bang, the universe had zero volume, but it was infinitely dense.
So begins the first chapter of The Cosmos Explained: The History of the Universe From its Beginning to Today and Beyond, a new book by Professor Charles Liu (GC/College of Staten Island, Physics, Astrophysics) who chronicles the history of the cosmos from its mysterious birth to its far-away future in a language we all can understand.
You have to put all of your tools of storytelling to work in order to tell a story as grand as the universe's history.”
— Charles Liu
So what made time begin to tick?
Liu answers this fundamental question with one of many scientific ideas explored in 12, short but mind-bending chapters. Whatever happened in that earliest moment in time can’t be explained by the physical rules we currently know, he writes, “nevertheless, it set up everything that has happened since then in the history of the cosmos.”
Liu, who recently launched the podcast The LIUniverse with Dr. Charles Liu, goes on to narrate the story of what came after the Big Bang, according to the physical rules we do know, including the special and general theories of relativity and the speed of light, which travels at a brisk 670 million miles an hour through the vacuum of space.
Written in plain prose, the book covers events such as the forming of the solar system, and the explosion of a blue star named Sanduleak −69° 202, which, Liu writes, blew up as a supernova that astronomers first spotted in 1987.
The focus on time was intentional. “This is a history book,” Liu said. “Any historian will tell you that we anchor ourselves through this dimension called time. So, what we're trying to achieve is the chance for folks to think about when things happened and why.”
Published by Ivy Press, the book’s almost 200 pages are designed with colorful, conceptual graphics and photographs from international observatories and space agencies. The book boasts a Pop Art–style cover and a timeline that runs throughout to show exactly when events take place over the course of 13.8 billion years.
The layout features mini biographies of some of the rock stars of physics: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, among them. But they also include surprising figures like the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who, as early as the fourth century BC, suggested that a “prime mover” was responsible for kickstarting the cosmos into motion.
The book is filled with fun facts about far-out phenomena such as the Crab Nebula — the kaleidoscopic remnants of a supernova, first recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 — and planetary bodies closer to home. Take Jupiter, for example, and its Great Red Spot, a storm larger than Earth that’s swirled for hundreds of years; or Saturn and its rings of ice and rock, which scientists expect to scatter into space in about 100 million years.
Liu says the book was designed so readers can turn to any page to read a small story within the larger one. “You have to put all of your tools of storytelling to work in order to tell a story as grand as the universe's history,” Liu said. “The understanding and knowledge of the universe is something that is literally universal. Everyone should know it. And it's so much fun.”
Liu also covers black holes — which, spoiler alert, he says are not giant vacuum cleaners — and other cosmic marvels such as the Higgs field, which gave mass to ingredients in a subatomic-particle soup that filled the universe one ten-billionth of a second after the Big Bang.
The future of humanity
In the last chapter of the book, Liu credits our unlikely existence to cosmic luck and human ingenuity; “Creativity and imagination have combined with an uncanny ability to use tools and make machines to do and build what no single person alone could ever achieve,” he writes.
Though he is clear that, billions of years from now, Earth and everything on it comes to a fiery-cataclysmic end as it’s incinerated by the sun — which itself will perish in five billion years, around the time the Milky Way smashes into the Andromeda galaxy — Liu remains positive.
“If you don't think of it so much as destruction, but as a sort of creative chaos, then you’re okay. All of these things have been happening all around the universe for billions of years,” he said.
In any case, humans have enough time to make a plan to avoid annihilation, he says. “So between now and then, I’m confident we’ll figure out how to survive it all, or how to get off this planet and survive somewhere else. Then again, a billion years ago the most complicated life form on Earth was a slime mold. Can we even imagine what it’ll mean to be human a billion years from now?”
On explaining the science
Liu wrote the book in the same language he would use to teach his graduate students or a class of fifth graders, free of impressive-sounding but distracting jargon. “Breaking through that kind of barrier was the whole point of this book,” said Liu, a frequent guest on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Liu offered advice to scientists who want to teach complex science ideas to a lay audience. “We humans love a good story, which is so much more memorable and more impactful than just a litany of facts,” Liu said.
“When telling that story, first make it clear, using the language your audience speaks,” he said. “Second, make it fun. We all like hearing the story of discovery, so tell it with all of its mystery, awe, tension, and joy. And then the third thing is make it cool.”
Astronomy has a big advantage here, he says, because you can simply look up at the sky, point in any direction and say, “Did you know?” Chances are pretty good that a gee-whiz moment will follow, said Liu.
Astrophysics Program at the CUNY Graduate Center
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