By Neil deGrasse Tyson
When I was in high school all those decades ago, I was firmly anchored to Earth and on the liberal arts track. I had little interest in the sciences, and NONE in physics. All those equations… are you kidding?? What would I need that for? What would I do with it, anyway? I don’t think it was unusual for most young women in those days to have the same attitude. I grew up and spent most of my adult life thinking: I don’t like science, and physics and astrophysics are WAY beyond anything I can comprehend.
Then I encountered the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who proved me wrong.
Chances are very good that you’ve encountered Tyson’s work in some way, too. He’s been at the forefront of discoveries about our universe for what turned out to be the most prolific decades of discovery and progress in his field. He has followed in the footsteps of Newton, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking, and many others. He and Carl Sagan met when Tyson was just 17 and already displaying his intense drive to pursue his field.
In fact, it was Tyson’s miniseries remake of the Carl Sagan classic Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that snagged my attention and subsequent interest. (Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote and directed the 2014 Tyson version available on DVD.) I surprised myself by understanding the material, and enjoying stepping back in time and learning about historical figures and discoveries. Since then, I’ve made a point of learning more about this subject–but I still stay away from equations.
Tyson’s latest work is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, now on the New York Times hardback non-fiction bestseller list for 46 WEEKS! That figure astonishes me, as does the indication that there must be millions of other people who are now interested in astrophysics–it’s not just for nerds anymore!
This book does exactly what it’s designed to do: it makes astrophysics accessible to any untrained reader in a way that can be consumed and digested in small, easily understandable bites. Readers don’t even need to read the chapters in order, although I do think it’s preferable.
Tyson tells us that the universe definitely is expanding, and why that’s known to be true. It’s also a fact that the same laws (e.g., gravity, speed of light) we’ve found and observed pertain throughout the universe. Following chapters discuss light; what exactly is out there in space; dark matter and dark energy. The latter two especially interest me, as their existence can only be divined by how the things AROUND those areas react to something unseen and (so far) invisible. They remind me of the mysteries where the dog DIDN’T bark.
Tyson explains what quantum mechanics, quarks, quasars, pulsars, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, and many other things, are and what they do. Did you know that “for large cosmic objects, energy and gravity conspire to turn objects into spheres?” (p. 136) Or that our Milky Way “galaxy is flatter than the flattest flapjacks ever made?” (p. 139) We may not have the telescopes available to view “large cosmic objects” or our galaxy, but descriptions such as these allow the reader to visualize them. Also, an index is provided in case a reader just wants information about specific topics.
Tyson has done far too much in all forms of media throughout his career to include here. He’s primarily an astrophysicist at his “day job” as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He’s written a number of books, countless articles, makes public appearances to talk about his work, and my favorite, hosts Star Talk on radio and the NatGeo TV channel.
He interviews people from a wide variety of fields, and incorporates those interviews with the chosen topic for that show. Examples are: astronauts Mae Jemison and Scott Kelly; surfer Kelly Slater; singer Katy Perry; film directors James Cameron and Kevin Smith. Every person on shows I’ve seen has surprised me in a good way. Tyson also interviewed Stephen Hawking for his March 4 show—that’s just 10 days prior to Hawking’s death.
I noticed another job description listed for Tyson: that of “science communicator.” In fact, he won the Stephen Hawking Medal for Outstanding Communication in June 2017. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of such an honor. Tyson has promoted the learning and understanding of Science relentlessly for many years. He speaks and writes in a way that makes complicated concepts understandable and ACCESSIBLE to anyone who cares to listen or read this book or others he’s written.
He has a knack for peppering his talks and writings with little nuggets of humor, and his writing flows easily and plainly. He’s mastered the art of getting people to relax and not be intimidated by the material so they can learn almost effortlessly. Best of all, he’s inspired untold numbers of children to become interested in science; lit that spark of interest in their minds. In a nutshell, he’s made Science cool again. THAT, discoveries, and space exploration are what has changed since I was in high school. Science is now part of our everyday lives.
Tyson always ends his shows with closing thoughts that leave us thoughtful and reflective. His comments can be profound in their simplicity. It’s not surprising that the last chapter is the best part of this book and not to be missed. In his own words:
“The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” (p. 205)
He goes on to list several things, of which my favorite is:
“The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.” (P. 206-207)
Neil deGrasse Tyson has given the world many gifts, but perhaps the greatest one is the cosmic perspective.
For complete information about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s career, publications, and everything you’d ever want to know about him:
Once can’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson without the now late Stephen Hawking also coming to mind. Thus, the author wishes to offer the following.
IN MEMORIAM: STEPHEN W. HAWKING 1942-2018
Hawking’s eerie timing: SH born 1/8/1942; Galileo died 1/8/1642; SH died 3/14/2018 (“pi day”); Einstein born 3/14/1879.
Rare early-onset ALS: ravaged his body, but left his brain unharmed.
Technical and computer advances extended his life by 50 yrs. beyond expectation. In an odd way, it’s almost as if he was freed with nothing to do but THINK.
Discoveries & writing of others set precedents so that the world was more receptive to his ideas than they would have been in earlier times.