Have you ever wondered where you came from? No, I’m not talking about your nationality or where your grandparents emigrated from and I’m definitely NOT talking about ‘the birds and the bees’. What I’m referring to is where the actual ‘stuff’ that makes up my, yours and everyone else’s body came from. The answer to this question, revealed through Neil deGrasse Tyson’s and Donald Goldsmith’s book: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, may be more impressive than you think.
Origins is essentially a top-down run-through of the evolution of the Cosmos from the Big Bang, all the way to present day. The book begins by talking about the very beginnings of the Universe. Avoiding any direct confrontation with any of the existing belief systems currently circulating on Earth, the book touches on the Big Bang, the explosion that started it all, and gives brief, yet telling, insights into the origins of matter and antimatter, cosmic expansion and the advent of light. From here the book transitions nicely into the origin of cosmic structures such as galactic super-clusters as well as how the individual galaxies within these clusters came to be.
From this point, the authors delve into individual star formation, where the search for ‘where we came from’ becomes a much more tangible quest. This is where things get (even more) interesting. Without going into too much detail (I don’t want to ruin the story, after all) Tyson and Goldsmith elegantly explain how our universe goes from a collection of hydrogen, helium and lithium atoms to a cosmic stew of atoms ranging from the puny hydrogen atom to the heavy unstable Uranium atom.
To explain this stage of cosmic evolution, we need to enter the realm of supernovas, the inconceivably large explosions that mark the death of the Universe’s heftiest stars. All their lives, these stellar behemoths have been pressure cooking (through nuclear fusion) light elements (Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium) into heavier elements (Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, the building blocks of life) all the way up to the 26th element on the Periodic Table, Iron, the big Fe. Once a star cooks all of its stellar ‘ingredients’ into Iron, things get a bit hairy. Unlike the 26 preceding elements, the splitting of Iron nuclei during the process of nuclear fusion is endothermic, that is, it requires more energy to split the atomic nucleus of Iron, than is released as a result of the split. This is when things fall apart for the star, or rather, when things come together. No longer able to produce energy through thermonuclear fusion (stay with me non-science people, we’re almost there) the star collapses in on itself due to its massive internal force of gravity before rebounding in a spectacular release of energy which we have titled: a supernova. Everything that once existed within the center of this star is flung across space to be used in the next step of our cosmic origin story.
After the process of supernovae is explained, the authors dive straight into the formation of planets and other heavy element rich bodies such as asteroids and comets which arise from the aforementioned stellar entrails. The book concludes by touching on the evolution of biological life on Earth (and possibly other planets).
My Humble Opinion
I’ll be straight up with you guys: this is quite possibly my favorite book of all time. Forget Gatsby or Huck Finn, Origins is a true literary classic. It even beats out my favorite book since 6th grade, And Then There Were None, a gripping tale of how 10 random people are all invited to an island and then systematically murdered one by one by an unknown assassin. Interesting, yes, but undoubtedly a story to be saved for another time. While it may not seem it, Origins is an incredibly approachable book, even to people who have never dabbled in learning about the Universe. This accessibility adds to its charm. The authors present the information with the familiar wit and audacity readers of this site are accustomed to. They assume little to no knowledge of the scientific concepts explored, and use layman’s terms and clever metaphors to explain almost every tricky subject in the book. As a result, even someone who has never looked up at the night sky will be able to take away something useful from Origins.
Tyson and Goldsmith’s book is great for people who do know a thing or two about space as well. The text is littered with little nuggets of knowledge that can be used to impress your second cousins at family dinner or your colleagues at the next office cocktail party. For example, on page 194 of the book, the authors explain that if you took an imaginary sphere with a diameter equal to that of distance of the Sun to Neptune and put it around our solar system, all the matter (Sun, planets, moons, etc) would only account for about one-trillionth of the space in that sphere. That’s .0000000001% of the volume of that sphere. That’s a lot of zeros!
Another reason I think this book is stellar (heh, get it?) is because it’s awesome EVEN IF YOU CAN’T READ! That’s right, you don’t even have to be able to decipher the English language or any other language for that matter, to enjoy this book. The book contains over 30 pages of high resolution photos and artistic renditions of cosmological events. These images include things ranging from massive interstellar gas clouds and nebulae to my all time favorite space pic, The Hubble Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field. Even if you don’t possess the language arts skills to spell your own name, you can pick up this book and get pleasure out of it. You just might want to have someone else go pick up a copy for you because it may be a bit tricky to find the book if you can’t read the title.
No matter if you’re young or old, boy or girl or if you like Coke or Pepsi, this book has something to offer you. Origins gives great insight into some very complicated and intriguing concepts in a manner that is both approachable, and fun to read. The greatest thing that you can take away from this book is that no matter who you are or where you grew up, we all come from the same place: The cores of massive stars strewn across interstellar space in massive explosions that dwarf the power of every weapon made by every nation in the history of mankind, combined; an origin story that is decidedly more awe inspiring and humbling than the birds and the bees.