Exclusive interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott on their NYT bestseller, Welcome to the Universe

UniverseWe’re thrilled to announce that Welcome to the Universe, a guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists, recently made the New York Times extended bestseller list in science. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all—from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wormholes, and time travel. The authors introduce some of the hot topics in astrophysics in today’s Q&A:


What is the Cosmic Perspective?

NDT: A view bigger than your own that offers a humbling, yet enlightening, and occasionally empowering outlook on our place as humans in time, space, on Earth and in the Universe. We devote many pages of Welcome to the Universe to establishing our place in the cosmos – not only declarations of that place, but also the reasons and the foundations for how we have come to learn how we fit in that place. When armed with a cosmic perspective, many earthly problems seem small, yet you cultivate a new sense of belonging to the universe. You are, in fact, a participant in the great unfolding of cosmic events.

What are some of the takeaways from the book?

NDT: If you read the entire book, and if we have succeeded as authors, then you should walk away with a deep sense of the operations of nature, and an appreciation for the size and scale of the universe; how and why planets form; how and why we search for planets orbiting around other stars, and alien life that may thrive upon them; how and why stars are born, live out their lives and die; what galaxies are and why they are the largest organizations of stars in the universe; the large scale structure of galaxies and space-time; the origins and future of the universe, Einstein’s relativity, black holes, and gravitational waves; and time travel. If that’s not enough, you will also learn about some of the continued unsolved mysteries in our field, such as dark matter, dark energy, and multiverses.

This book has more equations than do most popular books about astrophysics.  Was that a deliberate decision?

MAS: Yes.  The book’s subtitle is “An Astrophysical Tour,” and one of our goals in writing it was to show how observations, the laws of physics, and some high school mathematics can combine to yield the amazing discoveries of modern astrophysics: A Big Bang that happened 13.8 billion years ago (we show you how that number is determined), the dominant role dark matter has in the properties of galaxies (we tell you how we came to that conclusion), even the fact that some planets orbiting other stars have conditions conducive for liquid water to exist on their surface, thought to be a necessary prerequisite for life. Our goal is not just to present the wonders of the universe to the reader, but to have the reader understand how we have determined what we know, and where the remaining uncertainties (and there are plenty of them!) lie.

So your emphasis is on astrophysics as a quantitative science, a branch of physics?

MAS:  Yes.  We introduce the necessary physics concepts as we go: we do not expect the reader to know this physics before they read the book.  But astrophysicists are famous (perhaps notorious!) for rough calculations, “to astrophysical accuracy.”  We also lead the reader through some examples of such rough calculations, where we aim to get an answer to “an order of magnitude.”  That is, we’re delighted if we get an estimate that’s correct to within a factor of 2, or so.  Such calculations are useful in everyday life, helping us discriminate the nonsensical from the factual in the numerical world in which we live.

Can you give an example?

MAS: Most people in everyday discourse don’t think much about the distinction between “million,” “billion,” “trillion,” and so on, hearing them all as “a really big number,” with not much difference between them.  It is actually a real problem, and the difference between Federal budget items causing millions vs. billions of dollars is of course huge.  Our politicians and the media are confusing these all the time.  We hope that the readers of this book will come away with a renewed sense of how to think about numbers, big and small, and see whether the numbers they read about in the media make sense.

Is time travel possible?

JRG: In 1905 Einstein proved that time travel to the future is possible. Get on a rocket and travel out to the star Betelgeuse 500 light-years away and return at a speed of 99.995 % the speed of light and you will age only 10 years, but when you get back it will be the year 3016 on Earth. Even though we have not gone that fast or far, we still have time travelers among us today. Our greatest time traveler to date is the Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who by virtue of traveling at high speed in low Earth orbit for 879 days aged 1/44 of a second less than if he had stayed home. Thus, when he returned, he found Earth to be 1/44 of a second to the future of where he expected it to be. He has time traveled 1/44 of a second to the future. An astronaut traveling to the planet Mercury, living there for 30 years, and returning to Earth, would time travel into the future by 22 seconds. Einstein’s equations of general relativity, his theory of curved spacetime to explain gravity, have solutions that are sufficiently twisted to allow time travel to the past. Wormholes and moving cosmic strings are two examples. The time traveler can loop back to visit an event in his own past. Such a time machine cannot be used to journey back in time before it was created. Thus, if some supercivilization were to create one by twisting spacetime in the year 3000, they might use it to go from 3002 back to 3001, but they couldn’t use it go back to 2016, because that is before the time loop was created. To understand whether such time machines can be realized, we may need to understand how gravity works on microscopic scales, which will require us to develop a theory of quantum gravity. Places to look for naturally occurring time machines would be in the interiors of rotating black holes and at the very beginning of the universe, where spacetime is strongly curved.

Do we live in a multiverse?

JRG: A multiverse seems to be a natural consequence of the theory of inflation. Inflation explains beautifully the pattern of slightly hotter and colder spots we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. It explains why the universe is so large and why it is as smooth as it is and still has enough variations in density to allow gravity to grow these into galaxies and clusters of galaxies by the present epoch. It also explains why the geometry of the universe at the present epoch is approximately Euclidean. Inflation is a period of hyperactive accelerated expansion occurring at the beginning of our universe. It is powered by a large vacuum energy density and negative pressure permeating empty space that is gravitationally repulsive. The universe doubles in size about every 3 10-38 seconds. With this rate of doubling, it very quickly grows to enormous size: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024… That explains why the universe is so large. When the high density vacuum state decays, it doesn’t do so all at once. Like water boiling in a pot, it does not turn into steam all at once, but should form bubbles. Each expanding bubble makes a universe. The inflationary sea should expand forever, creating an infinite number of bubble universes, ours being one of them. Other distant bubble universes are so far away, and the space between us and them is expanding so fast, that light from them may never reach us. Nevertheless, multiple universes seem a nearly inevitable consequence of inflation.

What discovery about the universe surprises or inspires you the most?

JRG: Perhaps the most amazing thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible to intelligent, carbon-based life forms like ourselves. We have been able to discover how old the universe is (13.8 billion years) and figure out many of the laws by which it operates. The object of this book is to make the universe comprehensible to our readers.

Don’t miss this C-Span video on the book, in which the authors answer questions about the universe, including how it began and the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He is the author of many books, including Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, and the host of the Emmy Award–winning documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. J. Richard Gott is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His books include The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe (Princeton).