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‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’

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Neil deGrasse Tyson book an informative, entertaining scientific primer

It’s probably safe to say that most science fans out there have a bit of a crush on Neil deGrasse Tyson. The affable astrophysicist has entered popular culture to an extent that we haven’t seen from any celebrity scientist since Carl Sagan – or maybe ever.

Tyson is science’s greatest champion within the larger confines of the culture, so it’s no surprised that he’s written a book that aims to make some fairly complex stuff into engaging, accessible reading.

The result is “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” (W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95), a collection of essays about the big questions – how the universe works and why, how we fit into it, those sorts of questions. And throughout, Tyson’s voice, delivering it all with enthusiasm and charm.

(The book’s chapters were adapted from the “Universe” series of essays that appeared in Natural History magazine at various times from 1997 to 2007.)

The 12 pieces serve as basic primers to larger scientific ideas. Each essay captures the basic essence of its assigned concept, but never falls into the trap of getting overly wonky or complex in the course of the discussion. Obviously, these aren’t intended to be scholarly explorations of ideas, but rather explanations intended to impart an introductory level of understanding.

One piece might deal with the nature of gravity and its myriad implications. Another might discuss the nature of light and its behavior. Still another might talk about dark matter and dark energy. Pulsars, quantum theory, exoplanets (not to mention the science behind the discovery and observation of these phenomena) – Tyson gives each topic the full benefit of both his scientific mind and his engaging persona.

Readers are going to find their own highlights depending on their more specific areas of interest (although anyone picking this book up in the first place is probably going to be delighted by its contents in their entirety), but some of my personal standouts include the paired mid-book chapters “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy” and the surprising paean to the sphere “On Being Round.” In truth, however, every essay 

Imparting information in this manner is difficult to do without coming off as lecturing, or worse, dumbing things down and/or lapsing into full-on condescension. The key is to go deep enough without going too deep. In many ways, that ability is the biggest reason that Tyson is as prominent a part of the zeitgeist as he is. He discusses ideas with a high-minded respect, but rather than speak over the heads of his audience, he gives them a hand up.

The entire collection serves as a wonderful example of Tyson’s brand of pop science writing – he gives his readers credit and leans on the “science” part of the equation while still taking into account the entertainment portion of the proceedings. The passion he feels about all of this is strikingly evident throughout; he’s perfectly aware that this book could serve as a gateway of sorts into a more thorough investigation of the ideas being presented and fully embraces his role as scientific proselytizer. He loves this stuff and can’t imagine that you won’t love it too.

“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” is an ideal book for anyone looking for a crash course in or a brush-up on the basics of astrophysics. It’s a surprisingly breezy read considering the density of the subject matter, but Neil deGrasse Tyson has built a pop culture career on his ability to strike that balance. It’s smart and informative without every feeling dry, a chance to learn more about the stars even as you’re being encouraged to reach for them.

Last modified on Thursday, 11 May 2017 10:46

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