By Michael Benson, published Nov. 17, 2014 in the New York Times
Bob Berman’s entertainingly kinetic book “Zoom” arrives within an electric red cover that ricochets with lightning. A columnist for Astronomy magazine who favors the handle Skyman Bob, he transmits science geekery in vivid prose stuffed with unexpected insights and arresting observations.
Although I like to think I’m well-informed about the history of science and current cosmological theory, I learned a number of new things here, and they were conveyed with the fluent immediacy of a writer skilled at boiling complicated concepts down into easily understandable sentences served straight.
“Zoom” examines speeds of all kinds, from the spooky stasis of absolute zero (or 459.67 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, where even atoms stall. “You can’t go any slower than stopped,” Mr. Berman writes), through conventionally fast (a bounding cheetah) and on to superfast, light speed and even beyond — possible because the universe’s ever-accelerating expansion pulls the most distant galaxies away at such a clip that their light stands no chance of ever getting here.
The book’s tour of tempos covers locations and subjects as diverse as the observatories perched on high peaks in Chile’s bone-dry Atacama Desert; the hurricane-force winds of Mount Washington and Mount McKinley; the inner workings of lightning and auroras; and even sap’s variable speed as it rises from root to branch.
While this peripatetic book doesn’t address a core thesis or make a central argument, I don’t see that as a problem. Anyone who has ever contemplated the miracle of nanoseconds strobing endlessly within our 13.7-billion-year-old universe, or wondered at the presence of a star-spangled something as opposed to the empty alternative, will find plenty to contemplate. As our civilizational pulse grows ever faster, powered by technologies permitting (for example) the ultrafast stock trading recently exposed by Michael Lewis in “Flash Boys,” this book’s subject couldn’t be more, well, timely.
Mr. Berman has done due diligence in the archives as well. According to “Zoom,” most of the deaths in Pompeii in the year 79 were caused not by relatively slow-moving lava or ash from Mount Vesuvius. Rather, they resulted from high-speed exhalations of superheated gases mixed with scorching dust — a 60 m.p.h. ground-hugging admixture so deadly a single breath was enough to do the job. “There was no possible defense,” he writes. “Many of the victims were found with the tops of their heads missing because their brains boiled and exploded in their skulls.” Get your head around that.
Of course, that’s pyroclastic flow-to-person; what about a person’s speed? Per “Zoom,” while an individual moves at a supersonic 1,038 m.p.h. at the Equator even when lounging on the beach, simply because of earth’s spin — a rotational speed declining incrementally to zero as one ascends or descends to the poles — even the most quiescent among us reaches the speed of sound (761 m.p.h.) somewhere in between. But where? Turns out it’s the exact latitude of Woodstock, N.Y., that “laid-back hippie place,” as Mr. Berman puts it. “Who says irony isn’t everywhere?”
“Zoom” doesn’t sit still for a second. Consider the tranquil glide of snowflakes to earth. According to Mr. Berman, several molecules of water need to meet before freezing can begin, because “A single molecule cannot freeze.” (The italics are his.) Also, water molecules need specks of airborne detritus to coalesce around to form flakes. While that’s interesting enough, as far as it goes, it sets the stage for another of the author’s fascinating fast ones. It turns out that droplets of airborne moisture freeze most readily not around dust or smoke, but rather microbes. “Germs are the most common snowflake starters and lie at the heart of 85 percent of all flakes,” Mr. Berman writes. I’ll never look at a snowstorm the same way again.
In another example of the author’s talent for toying productively with received reality, he deploys Galileo’s ruminations on sound waves to attack the venerable tree-falling-in-the-woods conundrum, even making a convincing case that if nobody’s there to hear it, the tree in fact makes no sound.
How so? Galileo observed that sound consists of vibrations that spread through the air, “bringing to the tympanum of the ear a stimulus which the mind interprets as sound.” Remove the receiving eardrum from the equation, in other words, and no sound can have been produced. Here, Mr. Berman points out, Galileo was anticipating some of the more confounding findings of quantum mechanics, namely the correlative relationship between nature and observer.
Occasionally the author’s delivery is too glib, as when he refers to Aristotle and Plato’s “goofs” — a bit too easy from a 21st-century vantage point — and his similes can strain. Ultimately, it doesn’t detract from this absorbing book. “Zoom” concludes with a chapter showcasing an up-to-the-nanosecond cosmological finding so potentially momentous (it concerns the topology of the universe, which recent measurements have revealed to be utterly flat) that I’m still shaking my head — a tribute to the author’s storytelling skills.