Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil de Grasse Tyson
One of those clubs seemed perfect for a nerd like me. The Astrophysics Club met on Friday nights and got to use the school’s observatory. Two birds as they say.
And yes, I said observatory. One of the unusual features of my ‘central’ high school was that it housed the vocational and technical programs for a six-school district. So we tended to have one of everything.
That included an old airplane hangar, built during WWII to teach aircraft mechanics, that had been converted into two shop classrooms–auto and machine–and an observatory from the same era. Heck, the path from the school to the football field was obviously a runway and, just before I began attending, the school’s AM radio station shut down, so when I say one of everything take me literally.
The observatory sat toward the back of the lot where the kids in the horticulture program propagated evergreens and it was fully equipped. It had the roof that opened. The dome that sat on a track , driven by motors timed to stay in synch with the rotation of the earth. And, sitting in splendor right in the center, our reason for being there: a 10- or 12-foor long metal tube with a stool right beside it.
The club’s faculty advisor, Mr. Cook, taught social studies which fit perfectly with his observation about the group: sometimes we have more astronomy, sometimes we have more physics, mostly we just look at the moon. Given the ambient light 20 miles east of Manhattan we’re lucky we saw that.
Now that you know the type of nerd you’re dealing with we can get to the book.
Neil de Grasse Tyson is an astrophysicist with a day job and a mission. His job is to lead the activities of he Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. His mission is to popularize science in general and astrophysics in particular. A genial ambassador, he seems to genuinely enjoy the job.
I’m tempted to ask why this role always seems to fall to someone who studies the heavens. When I was a teen the guy in the job was Carl Sagan, the man who memorably married the billions and billions of astronomy and McDonald’s. There were others before that, too. I suppose it’s because most all of us have stared in awe at the nighttime sky.
My first exposure to both Sagan and Tyson was on television. Strangely, I’ve read more of Sagan’s papers–although not the brain-twisting, serious scientist ones–than his popular books. With Tyson, this is the first of anything I’ve read, though he’s been in my living room before.
That familiarity carries over to the printed page. Tyson is an easy writer, breathlessly taking on complicated subject matter with a tone of wonder and excitement that never lets up. My initial reaction to this book’s title was, “It’s a joke, right?” Well, not really, though it’s admittedly more eye-catching than, say, A Cursory Review of Current Astrophysics which, if you think about it, is the same thing.
Can you really hurry along astrophysics? Hawking tried to, and reveled in joking about how many people finished A Brief History of Time, let alone understood it. I finished it and remain baffled. Same with Einstein‘s popular volume on relativity. Those two, though, don’t give you a break. Right away they’re warping the fabric of space-time and hitting the higher order maths.
Tyson will spare you that. There are plenty of large numbers–wrapping your head around big numbers associated with time and distance goes with the territory–but he’s the kind of guy who will find an example you can relate to.
Here’s one, used to illustrate why nature prefers spheres: the contents of a super-jumbo box of Cheerios easily fit into a sphere with a radius of four and a half inches. (p. 155) You’ll encounter such illustrations if not on every page then in every chapter. He makes better use of TV science fiction–in particular the Star Trek family of shows–than I’ve encountered before.
What you are not going to get is more than an overview. There’s just no way to do it in two hundred pages no matter how big the brain or how great the writer and his editorial team. I think Tyson’s goals are to give you a firm grounding and perhaps to whet your appetite for learning more. Those are laudable ends and I’d say he’s succeeded. Just don’t expect to come out it knowing how to calculate the amount of dark matter in the known universe.
I always believe there’s value in reading about science. In my experience, scientists are often fine writers. In part that’s because they’re salesmen for new ideas.
I’m not denigrating scientists when I say this. People resist the new and persuading them to change their minds is no small talent. Maybe even more important, scientists excel at explaining natural phenomena through evidence-based theories.
Tyson summarizes the value of that approach, what he terms the cosmic perspective, near the end of the book. And while the tone is a bit evangelical, I just said he was a salesman and I began by describing his mission so it should be neither unexpected nor unwelcome.
It wouldn’t be fair to not showcase just how accessible Tyson can be . Here’s an excerpt describing large objects in the asteroid belt that might collide with earth:
“A simple calculation reveals that most of them [objects in the asteroid belt whose orbits will interact with earth’s] will hit Earth within a hundred million years. The ones larger than about a kilometer across will collide with enough energy to destabilize Earth’s ecosystem and put most of Earth’s land species at risk of extinction.That would be bad.” (pp. 168–169)
See, not scary at all.
Now dig in.