Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Neil deGrasse Tyson

W. W. Norton


…unrelenting skeptics might declare that “seeing is believing”—an approach to life that works well in many endeavors, including mechanical engineering, fishing, and perhaps dating. It’s also good, apparently, for residents of Missouri. But it doesn’t make for good science. Science is not just about seeing, it’s about measuring, preferably with something that’s not your own eyes, which are inextricably conjoined with the baggage of your brain. That baggage is more often than not a satchel of preconceived ideas, post-conceived notions, and outright bias.

      from Astrophysics for People in a Hurry




Celestial shock and awe

It’s been suggested that Neil deGrasse Tyson chose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry as his title because Astrophysics for Dummies was already taken. I ain’t proud. This is a book for mathematically-challenged physics-phobes like me who are, um, in a hurry. The writing is lucid, using helpful analogies, and made enjoyable with Tyson’s trademark good humor (“We are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within. Need more ego softeners?”)

He begins the book announcing upfront that “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Just as well since it doesn’t. And not just to me. The eminent British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1942) once explained how the universe works as “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” Which is what I’ve always kind of thought, too.

Tyson explains complex concepts, like dark matter (“dark matter’s effects are real. We just don’t know what it is.”) and dark energy (“So what is the stuff? Nobody knows.”) and, in fact, he concludes, “Most of the universe is made up of stuff about which we are clueless.” Which brings us back to good old Sir Arthur.

Still, Tyson’s and Eddington’s cosmological ignorance is of an exponentially higher caliber than my cosmological ignorance, and it was fascinating to read Tyson’s account of how humankind, from the ancients to today’s astrophysicists, has tried to make sense of this mysterious phenomenon we call the universe.

Tyson also manages to evoke that same sense of celestial shock and awe that his predecessor Carl Sagan did so well: “Time to get cosmic. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed”—we’re talking four billion years ago, so don’t bother trying to work out the math in your head.

Finally, Tyson has a humility that is refreshing in our current age of Super Egos wed to Colossal Ignorance. He writes “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

If you consider yourself to be in that category of people who are “in a hurry,” yet desire at least a rudimentary introduction to astrophysics and want to understand just how “un-understandable” the universe is, you might enjoy this slender volume, too. I’m certainly glad I read it. And just in time for that recent major cosmological event of two neutron stars colliding into each other (recent=130 million years to reach us.) Which sounds about right: 130 million years for me to finish a book on astrophysics.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 25, 2017-January 9, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.