Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
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Astrophysics is an intimidating subject. I find difficult to even wrap my head around the unfathomable scope of it. At the same time, who amongst us hasn’t gazed at the stars and wanted to know just a little more about what’s out there?
What’s needed is a good teacher.
Neil de Grasse Tyson has no head for heights. According to his mother, the celebrity astrophysicist gets queasy in an elevator which may explain why he didn’t want to be an astronaut (New Yorker Profile, 17/2/2014). His career, instead, has been devoted to communicating the wonder of the universe to the general public. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He has presented TV shows including Nova Science Now and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and hosts a radio show called Star Talk.
Tyson is an excellent communicator. He speaks plainly and engages his audience with a keen wit and references to popular culture. At the request of DC comics, Tyson has pinpointed a star that could support Superman’s home planet, Krypton. Joe Patterson, a professor of astronomy at Columbia University described Tyson as, ‘a combination of Carl Sagan and Mr. Rogers.’
Tyson opens the book, quite logically, with the words, ‘In the Beginning...’
Think about this:
‘A mere sixty-five million years ago (less than two percent of Earth’s past), a ten-million-ton asteroid hit what is now the Yucatan Peninsula and obliterated more than seventy percent of the Earth’s flora and fauna—including all the famous outsized dinosaurs. Extinction. This ecological catastrophe enabled our mammal ancestors to fill freshly vacant niches, rather than continue to serve as hors d’oeuvres for T. Rex. One big-brained branch of these mammals, that which we call primates, evolved a genus and species (Homo sapiens) with sufficient intelligence to invent methods and tools of science— and to deduce the origin and evolution of the universe.’
What Tyson does, from the start, is allow the reader a sense of pride in what we humans have achieved. He instils a sense of ownership of this vast body of discovery already beneath our collective belt and conveys the excitement of sharing in ongoing exploration.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is not a Dummies’ Guide to Life, the Universe and Everything, nor is it a handbook of easily digestible facts for the reader to regurgitate at dinner parties. Instead, Tyson presents a collection of a dozen thoughtful, and thought provoking, essays each measuring, by my non-standard unit of reading time, exactly one cup of coffee. Each chapter stands alone, addressing one aspect or pillar of astrophysics, while the collection as a whole describes a graceful arc from the beginning of time to an infinite, and unknowable future.
Chapter One, a seething soup of quarks, leptons and bosons, literally hurt my head. Even my geeky, space-obsessed teenage son admits that segments of this book are only barely within the grasp of the laity. That’s how it should be, however, since the point of reading a book like this is to learn and learning, like any exercise, hurts a little. The restricting elastic of my brain relaxed as I read on, or maybe the subject matter just got easier. Tyson’s style is crisp and entertaining, with plenty of humorous asides, even flatulence jokes. If you can put your trust in the author and go with it, before too long you will find ‘aha’ moments coming at you thick and fast as meteors in August.
‘No matter how fast you go you will never overtake a beam of light.’
Why can’t you travel faster than the speed of light? Astrophysics for People in a Hurry has the answer to that question and more: What is the Big Bang Theory? Why do stars collapse? Why do galaxies form clusters rather than spread evenly across the universe? Why does the planet Mars have mountains that make our highest peaks resemble pimples by comparison? What’s in the space between the galaxies? Why is Pluto NOT a planet? What exactly is dark matter? (The short answer: nobody knows.) And my favourite: Why, exactly, cannae ye break the laws of physics, Scottie?
The question of dark energy is one which seems to keep the author awake at night. His description of the problem left me flabbergasted.
What astrophysicists know is that something, which they call Dark Energy, is causing the universe to expand.
‘Distant galaxies visible in the night sky will ultimately disappear beyond and unreachable horizon, receding from us faster than the speed of light.’
Astrophysicists have been frantically wielding expensive slide rules and making measurements against familiar, distant supernovas. These they call ‘standard candles’ because they act as bright points by which the expansion of the universe may be measured. They do hard sums, formulate possible explanations of Dark Energy and then test their theory against those standard candles. So far, the sums don’t add up. Meanwhile, distant galaxies are slowly but surely receding beyond that almost unimaginably distant, but very real horizon.
So, future astrophysicists may not have the same stars to guide them that we do—they won’t see the whole story. This time, right now, may be our best opportunity of figuring this out. Or possibly, as Tyson describes his worst nightmare, the answer may have already receded beyond that horizon. Astrophysics may, to some degree at least, be the study of the unknowable.
‘There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.’
There’s more to this book than knowing your quarks from your quasars, or your cosmic rays from the Coma cluster (I could go on, there’s room for a LOT of alliteration in Space). Rather than providing a crib sheet of easily memorised facts, Tyson convinces the reader why it’s worth, it’s always worth, learning more.
‘We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.’
Consider Astrophysics for People in a Hurry as a taster menu of a dozen courses, each serving a small morsel, a nugget, of knowledge to relish and to share. Rather than satisfying my curiosity on the subject of Astrophysics, this fascinating book has only served to whet my appetite.
This is a book that will make you feel small, minuscule, in the grand scale of the universe while, at the same time, making you realise that your ability to appreciate how small you are is a miracle not to be wasted.