The Big Idea: Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist

How does one write a user’s guide to the universe? After all, the universe is a pretty big place, and although we all use the universe on a daily basis, there’s a lot of stuff in it that we just don’t fiddle with (this is not necessarily a bad thing — most of us just aren’t equipped to handle an entire star, for example). Suffice to say there’s a lot going on in the universe, and even the people comfortable handling their corners of it have questions about the rest.

It’s “the rest of it” that Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist want to explain in A User’s Guide to the Universe, and they came into the writing knowing one thing: when explaining the universe, it’s easy to get complicated, difficult to stay simple, and dangerous to be boring. Here’s how they got the most bang out of everything since the Big Bang.

DAVID GOLDBERG and JEFF BLOMQUIST:

There are a lot of books out there on physics and cosmology, and nearly every one of them touts as their chief virtue that they are “accessible.”  That said, we can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had with our civilian friends about some science bestseller in which they say something along the lines of, “That book was amazing, though I’m sure I didn’t understand a tenth of it.”  There’s probably a bit of undue modesty here, but also a kernel of truth.  It’s our experience that most pop-sci books go for the “Wow” factor and as a result, they end up as beautifully written, almost poetic odes to the universe, but ones that are perhaps better at awing than illuminating.

A couple of years ago, we were teaching a freshman physics course at Drexel University, and frankly, we were bored with teaching students about pulleys and blocks on planes.  And the students were bored with those things, too.  We constantly got questions after class or in the hallways asking about things that they will most likely never get to see in a classroom: time travel, the time before the big bang, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  But it wasn’t just them. At parties, on airplanes, while waiting at the DMV, we got questions from friends, from our editors, and sometimes from complete strangers.

And that’s where we came up with our big idea: answer the Big Questions.  But (and here’s the hard part) they had to be the sort of questions that people actually might — and do — ask, and not read like a FAQ for some freeware CD-burning program.

Can you break the light barrier?  Is there an exact duplicate of you somewhere else in time and space? What happens if you fall into a black hole? These are the kinds of questions complete strangers found so important. Our inaugural question, the one that really got us started, was, “I know the universe is expanding, but what is it expanding into?”  From Nova, the Discover Channel, or even other books, most people are pretty aware of the buzzwords and core concepts, but not what, say, it actually means for a universe to expand, let alone what’s on the other side.  And that’s where we come in.

Our goal is to explain not only what we know, but how we know it, and more importantly, what it means. We wanted to leave readers with the sort of gut understanding that physicists have, only without the math gumming up the works.  We wanted to make clear the distinction between what we really know, and what’s still on the fringe.  We wanted to focus on the science, and not the history; we give credit where credit is due, but don’t go in for the narrative description of “Eureka moments.”

Just as important, we didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously. We realize that every “irreverent guide to physics” tries to make physics fun and accessible, but we opted to throw propriety to wind entirely.  At the center of this are our cartoons.  During graduate school, Jeff papered his office with terrible puns, including (our favorites), “The Solar Neighborhood” (which showed Pluto passed out on his lawn), and ridiculously dorky “How physicists can cheat at tag,” which we put into the final book, and which appears below.

We figured that if we were having fun, readers would, too.  We put in (à la Dave Barry) silly footnotes.  We make fun of our readers (see if you can find the Easter egg in the index), and our mascot is an alien named Dr. Snuggles.  In short, we wanted to write the funniest and most useful physics book you’ll read all year.

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A User’s Guide to the Universe: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See additional cartoons. Download the coloring book.

23 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist

  1. Ok, I’m sold. Book marked for purchase. Looks like this will be a little less dry than the Bohr-Einstein debates.

  2. I need this book. I’m writing a book with dark energy, alternate universes (with other versions of ourselves) and telekinesis, and my poor liberal arts brain can’t keep it all sorted out sometimes!

  3. I have no doubt that this would be the funniest and most useful physics book I will read all year as it is likely to be the only physics book I read this year. Since I long ago decided that physicists were either making stuff up just for a laugh or believed in some sort of magic, I wonder if this book could change my belief.

  4. Have to think about this, as someone with a degree or two in Physics, most “aproachable” physics books come of as too trite. The excerpts do seem fairly well written.

    Ovbiously I’m not the target demographic.

    The coloring book on the other hand…Physics coloring books make me feel all warm and happy.

  5. Ooh, gotta’ get this one for the daughter (9 years old). This is the sorta’ thing she eats up. Told me this morning she woke up scared from the storm last night. She put on Discovery channel and fell back asleep to a show visualizing a dinosaur killer hitting Earth.

  6. Mark – We’d appreciate your thoughts. One of the things that we tried to do was to explain things as we understood them, rather than in terms of metaphor. I agree with the triteness comment. There’s a ~10 page passage in one of Greene’s otherwise excellent book which compares M-theory to viewing different versions of string theory from a cloudy mountain top.

  7. I’m in the same demographic as Mark H. above and usually find general physics and astronomy books unreadable (even some of those written by friends). This one looks as though it’s worth a second or third look though. I think the authors do need to brush up on their airline technique however: If I’m sitting next to someone I DO NOT EVER want to talk to, I tell them I’m a physicist and mumble something unintelligible about solid state stuff; if it looks as though I might actually want to talk to them, and of course one needs to be VERY careful here, I tell them I’m an astronomer. The authors have discovered the great thing about teaching intro astronomy compared to intro physics: you don’t have to spend most of the semester on stuff everyone knew by 1700!

  8. Coolstar, just start talking about ballistic electron transport in graphene sheets…

    Unless by dumb luck you are sitting next to another solid state physicist you will be left alone for the rest of the flight. ;-)

  9. I often think I was meant to be a physicist. But, due to a snafu with the office at my high school, I wasn’t allowed to take physics. Maybe it’s time to go back to school. This book looks like it could be the hook I’m looking for to start me off… If nothing else, it’ll give the wife and I something else to talk about :)

  10. Damn you Scalzi! I just spent my allowance! Now I have to wait until next month before I can get this….I should have waited…

  11. I typically don’t buy books until I’ve read them (though we’ve now ordered How to teach physics to your dog… my husband teaches 1st year university physics and wants the anecdotes *g*) but this one seriously tempts me.

    That said, I’ve convinced my local library to order it, which probably means several copies sold and maybe more once people start borrowing it. :)

  12. I got this from the library (I’m such a cheater) yesterday, but I still want it signed… Very badly. But I guess I could BUY the book… Yeah, that should work!

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