Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson is mind-blowing in the scope it covers, impressive in making complex, cutting edge science accessible for a non-scientific reader, and delightful in its use of humor to break the complexity of science lingo and concepts.
Tyson starts with the big bang – did you know the big bang took billions of years?!!– and explains it together with a plethora of other concepts and phenomena, from theory of relativity to gravity, nuclear and electromagnetic forces, matter, anti-matter, quarks, hadrons, quasars, on and on. He goes on to describe the appearance of Homo sapiens from the “primordial soup” that formed our planet. All through this, and through the whole book, he is extremely modest about himself and science: “…ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist. People who believe they are ignorant of nothing have neither looked for, nor stumbled upon, the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe.”
Tyson demonstrates that the chemical elements humans have discovered are the building blocks of all planets, comets and stars in the universe, and the laws of physics, like for example the law of gravity, are the same everywhere in our galaxy too.
The third chapter, “Let there be Light”, talks about the formation of light, temperature of the universe, and the cosmic microwave background. Tyson guesses when questions arise in the incredulous reader’s mind about his statements and with, “You can’t make this stuff up,” goes on to prove the statement/theory he’s proposing. This particular reader doesn’t claim that she understands everything Tyson says, but I did understand most of it, and it was so incredible that I kept on reading and re-reading passages, looking up words and taking notes.
In two separate chapters, Tyson explores the interplanetary and intergalactic space. At this point I balked. Why hadn’t they told me in school there were BILLIONS of galaxies? All they talked about was our puny Milky Way! Then I thought that might be the fault of my age, rather than our physics curriculum. They probably didn’t know back then that there were billions of galaxies.
“All the fun in the universe happens between the galaxies rather than within them,” Tyson says. Dwarf galaxies, supernovas, cosmic rays, quasars, pulsars and the effect of gravity on distorting the light they project are discussed.
The chapters on dark matter and dark energy talk about the long process, by trial and error, culminating in the discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, which is “…dark energy ….the most prominent thing in town, currently responsible for 68 percent of all the mass-energy in the universe; dark matter comprises 27 percent, with regular matter comprising a mere 5 percent.” “Regular matter” means what we see, touch, hear and experience of what forms the universe.
Did you know we can only see 5% of all that exists in the universe?!! I certainly didn’t.
In two separate chapters Tyson explores chemistry and light. These include the fascinating process of prediction and discovery of all the chemical elements on the Periodic Table, the equally tantalizing process of the discovery of invisible forms of light (infrared, ultraviolet, etc.) and electromagnetic spectrum (x-ray, microwaves, etc.)
Tyson doesn’t just analyze science, but relates it to everyday life, often quoting famous people and scripts:
In explaining the reason for planets being round, he quotes Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low.”
In the beginning of the chapter,”Invisible Light” he quotes Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And he uses his refreshing sense of humor every chance he gets. In the chapter on Dark Matter he says: “So dark matter is our frenemy. It’s kind of annoying. But we desperately need it in our calculations to arrive at an accurate description of the universe.”
He often makes self-deprecating remarks, “I am now accountable for some of the solar system’s interplanetary debris. In November 2000, the main-belt asteroid 1994KA, discovered by David Levy and Carolyn Shoemaker was named 13123-Tyson in my honor.”
And he presents philosophical reflections. Regarding our “cosmic perspective” he says, “It’s about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” And regarding our humble interconnectedness with everything in the universe he remarks, ”I began to think of people not as masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years…”
He also makes observations about the nature of science, “Around the world, varying belief systems lead to political differences that are not always resolved peacefully. The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them.”
He ends with a warning against thinking that our knowledge of the cosmos is enough and we don’t need any more scientific explorations: “In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their ‘low contracted prejudices’”.
This book should be compulsory reading for everyone, because it’s about our environment, on a large scale. It’s about our planet, its chemical and physical properties and its scale and place in the universe. And by extension our scale and place in the universe. In Tyson’s own words, “At one time or another every one of us has looked up at the night sky and wondered: What does it all mean? How does it all work? And, what is my place in the universe.” Not only are these questions answered in a most satisfying way in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, but you’re left “hungry for more”.