Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Reflections: Death by Blackhole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

This was my first audiobook. My husband and I finally reached an equilibrium to engage in a shared activity during long road trips. Arguably, when it comes to books (as with anything else), our margins of intersection are pretty thin, but still, we optimistically settled on our common ground of Science, and downloaded this book. It is an achievement in and of itself that we both read/listened to the same book from beginning to end. Hopefully this isn’t the first and the last one!

The book is a compilation of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essays on Cosmology and Astrophysics. It covers a comprehensive breadth of fundamental topics in Physics, or rather Astrophysics. Most of the chapters were part of our high school textbooks, so in that sense, I don’t think I learned any brand new theories or concepts, but it was a good refresher that helped me internalize some of the harder concepts. I also enjoyed listening to some of the scientific studies that were conducted over the years. My favorite chapters were the initial and the final ones. Tyson knows how to engage his readers/listeners. His initial essays convincingly emphasize on the need for Scientific studies, analytical thinking, and rigorous reasoning to help us understand the unfathomable Universe. He instills the need to inculcate humility and acknowledge our limitations, and to be as open-minded as possible in our studies. The fact that Astrophysicists still haven’t deciphered a major chunk of the mysteries of the Universe is a telling sign of our limitations. But, that doesn’t mean we resign and give up, and attribute everything to something far too intelligent. The more humble and open-minded we are, the more analytical tools we employ, the more we advance in our quest to augment our knowledge and fill our ignorance. I appreciated this stance that threads through all his chapters. I expected a little more from his final chapters - especially the ones on Culture and Scientific Exploration, Science and Religion, but he merely scratches the surface of such topics.

Both my husband and I are interested in Cosmology - while I’m mostly curious of some of the fascinating theories and philosophical aspects of it, my husband is more interested in the mathematics and the hardcore physics behind it all. So, the impressive part of the book is that it managed to keep us both engaged due to the manner in which Tyson has framed the essays. Also, I’m a novice to Cosmology, and my knowledge of Physics is pretty basic, but my husband’s stronghold is Physics. So, it was interesting that the book appealed, in some respects, to both of us.

However, we both thought that there were too many repetitions of topics. Since these were formally essays, each one would work good as a standalone, but there were quite a few overlap between the essays, making the continuity of the overall book a little strained. Some of the essays didn’t flow together either. The repetitions also made our short attention spans drift off.

Now, onto my thoughts on the audio-format. Understandably, it was very hard to concentrate after a couple of hours of listening. We were distracted by the driving or would just nod off. And if there were parts of a paragraph that I didn’t quite understand, the rewinding feature didn’t help me much. I am used to mulling over difficult or thought-provoking sentences and concepts by either repeatedly reading through the words slowly, or writing/sketching something out, or by just referring to a previous chapter/page/paragraph and thinking over everything. I could have perhaps done all this with an audio book as well, had I been at home and next to a paper/pencil, and had the patience to rewind multiple times to get to a specific sentence. But while driving, if you miss something, or don’t understand a few sentences, it’s quite hard to retrace to a specific sentence or paragraph. I couldn’t underline, or highlight, so the interesting sentences and pages could not be marked, and consequently not remembered. These issues wouldn’t surface with Fiction. But with books dealing with more complicated concepts, audio-formats may not work well all the time.

In addition, the narrator plays a tremendous role in how well the book is assimilated. I loved the narration of the book! It was brilliant. Till the end, I thought the narrator was Tyson himself, for the voice betrayed the same baritone and clarity, but I was totally surprised when I heard it was Dion Graham! Wow, Dion Graham did a phenomenal job narrating the book. He captured the enthusiasm, the sarcasm, the wit, the humor, the excitement, the sophistication, the emotions, and the knowledge of the author. The narration made the book so many more times entertaining and engaging. One can just listen to the excellent voice and tune out everything else - which is what I did every time the 2 hour threshold hit!

Well, to summarize, this is a wonderful collection of essays that is sure to appeal to anyone who is interested in the basics of Astrophysics and the debates surrounding the concepts. Experts might enjoy Tyson’s way of elucidating the concepts, and of course, his wit and humor.


Meens said...

I think the smiley rating may be biased Considering this became a special read ;-) hihi, good opp to pull your leg! :-D

Neeraja said...

Haha ;)

Karthik said...

Nice ! With audio books, perhaps they tone of the speaker's voice is just as important as the content .. Maybe you might want to try audio books by James Herriot if they're around :-) I myself am yet to try an audiobook though !

Neeraja said...

Sure Karthik, I'll look around for James Herriot's books :).