Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

The difference between a good artist and a great one is never a question of competency. No, the great artist reveals the beauty of the subject in a way that creates awe in us whereas the good simply represents. The great reawakens that childish sense of amazement. If this is true, then Neil deGrasse Tyson is a great artist. His gift is to be able to present the large, complex mechanisms of the universe in exciting and accessible ways. From his books to podcasts to the show Cosmos to twitter, Dr. Tyson is raising public interest in science. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Dr. Tyson’s newest book, presents 12 essays to give anyone a survey of modern astrophysics. While each essay is built on a technical framework, the content requires nothing of the reader but a curiosity for the world as it is. This is non-fiction filled with imagination. In this book, Dr. Tyson reveals the beauty of our universe that is often buried in the technical, mechanical papers of academia. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry renews that sense of awe we get from looking up at the night sky.

TL;DR: This is a great introduction to the universe in accessible, sensible writing. Highly recommended.

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From the publisher:

The essential universe, from our most celebrated and beloved astrophysicist.

What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.

While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is twelve essays adapted from Dr. Tyson’s “Universe” series in Natural History magazine. Since I didn’t read that series, I can’t say whether they are strict reprints or modified for this collection. It doesn’t matter; these essays are an excellent overview of the astrophysics field. From the size of the universe to the Big Bang to dark matter and dark energy, this collection tackles big concepts in an accessible prose.

My favorite essay was the final one, Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective. It’s an argument for a more enlightened view. Dr. Tyson uses the perspective of an alien searching for life in the universe and what we may look like to them. With this essay, he’s appealing to humanity to take the long view. It’s a hopeful piece that urges us to put aside our differences to look into eternity; Dr. Tyson wants us to care for and about our world. “We do not live in this universe. The universe lives within us.” This line from the essay typifies the wonder in which Dr. Tyson views his surroundings.

The dark energy essay is dedicated to the redemption of the Einstein’s cosmological constant. It mixes history with cutting edge science. Dr. Tyson also terrifies me here; he makes the claim that in the future the speed at which galaxies move away from us will be greater than the speed of light. This means that in the future, the sky might only contains stars from our own galaxy. It’s almost too big to comprehend. Without a record of these times, future generations may never know there are other galaxies.

I thought the weakest piece was The Cosmos on the Table. Conceptually, it is an excellent idea; the essay is a tour through the periodic table based on how the element is viewed/used in astrophysics. But somehow it doesn’t work. Potentially this could be my bias against chemistry – definitely not my favorite subject. It just didn’t rise to the eloquence and awe of, say, the Dark Energy chapter. This chapter seemed more utilitarian than the others.

My only complaint is that this collection is too short. I’d love for a few more essays in here. Dr. Tyson, one of the few pop culture physicists, makes a strong argument for the beauty of the natural world. His ability to translate the highly sophisticated topics into, not only universal, but entertaining language as well. This book makes for an excellent primer on the subject of astrophysics. It’s essays will educate in a way that shifts your perspective as only a great artist can.

Crab Pulsar
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