Astrophysics For People in a Hurry

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Reviewed by Gordon Simmons

A book on astrophysics, of all things, has nestled near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 36 weeks and counting. The author of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, researcher, author, and host of several popular television series, including “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” The book’s impressive sales seem to support Tyson’s claim for a genuine public Interest in science. Assuming, of course, that people are actually reading the books they buy.

“Why should any of this be interesting?” Tyson teases us. His opening epigraph reads, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” He offers an elegant 200-page, pocket-size volume that is fascinating and fun. Writing in a conversational tone, with a sly wit and creative analogies, he draws us into topics like the origin of the universe, the nature of space and time, and the startling amount of stuff in interplanetary space.

Tyson’s special talent is to help us learn at least something about the physical causes of what we see in the sky and wonder about.

No less a thinker than Plato thought astronomy “compels the soul to look upwards.” Tyson is the most recent in a line of scientists with a knack for explaining complex ideas based on physics and math in terms we can understand. His own mentor was Carl Sagan, whose television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” captivated many of us (“billions and billions of stars”). Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould wrote polemic essays and books on evolutionary theory with a graceful literary style and the ability to treat difficult concepts with exceptional clarity. In fact, popularizing science is far from new. Tyson quotes from James Fergusson’s 1757 tome, Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, and Made Easy To Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics.

Einstein famously cautioned,” If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Today we see on educational television and in science columns ideas like the Big Bang, gravity waves, dark matter, dark energy, quasars, pulsars, dwarf galaxies, and nebulae. Tyson’s special talent is to help us learn at least something about the physical causes of what we see in the sky and wonder about. I especially appreciate his sprinkling of historic and language anecdotes, such as the literary origin of “quark” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the derivation of “galaxy” from the Greek galaxias, “milky,” and an account of how Einstein began his career of thought experiments. Tyson tells us that in Germany before World War II, laboratory physics far outranked theoretical physics in stature, so Jewish physicists were all relegated to the theoretical realm. He reminds us of humanity’s journey into science, not just the science itself.

The book’s twelve chapters originally appeared as essays in the Natural History Magazine from 1998 to 2007. Some of this writing is 20 years old, a long time in this field of science. The publisher does indicate that Tyson “adapted” them for the book. One result of the stand-alone chapters is a certain lack of connection and narrative flow. On the other hand, each chapter takes up a single fundamental topic, perfect for the busy reader to read in digestible chunks.

Although it seems logical to open the book with the chapter on the beginning of the universe, the author’s untypically complicated account of the first second of existence, with its soup of subatomic particles and energy—photons, quarks, bosons, leptons, hadrons—left me a bit bewildered and anxious to move on.

What’s missing? We don’t find much on the birth, life, and death of stars. And Tyson doesn’t really try to explain those monsters we call Black Holes. But here I may be asking too much of a short book. More detrimental is the omission of visuals—pictures and diagrams like those in his television series that help us grasp difficult ideas. Still, the book features enticing tidbits that make concrete what might otherwise be hopelessly abstract. Examples: Two cubic feet of iridium weighs as much as a Buick; or, to picture the density of a pulsar, imagine stuffing a hundred million elephants into a ChapStick casing.

In the chapter On Being Round Tyson informs us that, from simple soap bubbles to the entire observable universe, spheres are favored by simple physical laws. Energy and gravity conspire to turn large cosmic objects into spheres. “But gravity does not always win.” Because of the resilience of crustal rock, the Himalayas grew against Earth’s gravitational force. “But before you get excited about Earth’s mighty mountains, you should know that the spread in height from the deepest undersea trenches to the tallest mountains is about a dozen miles, yet Earth’s diameter is nearly eight thousand miles… If you had a super-duper, jumbo-gigantic finger, and you dragged it across the Earth’s surface (oceans and all), Earth would feel as smooth as a cue ball.” So all of those commercial plastic globes that portray raised mountain ranges are “gross exaggerations of reality.”

In the book’s sober final chapter, Tyson tries to locate his interest in astrophysics within larger questions. Why should we care about the origin and makeup of the universe when there are so many human problems here on Earth to address?

“The cosmic perspective is humble,” he writes. “The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious…. We owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore,” in part because it’s fun, but also because it’s critical to our future. “The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us.”

W.W. Norton & Co., 2017
224 pp