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Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

It's a delightful book for those curious about the marvels of the universe, and students who want to major in astrophysics
BY Uttara Choudhury |   25-07-2017
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, published by W.W Norton

Well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delightful book is not quite astrophysics for dummies; while the subject is demystified, it is not elementary. It’s a gem of a book for people curious about the marvels of the cosmos and students who want to major in astrophysics for their love of science. It is dedicated to “all of those too busy to read fat books, yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos”.

With its sweeping overview of astrophysics and pleasingly understandable explanations of planetary science, galaxy formation, stellar evolution, dark matter, dark energy, the origin of the universe, gravitation, general relativity, and more, the book goes a long way toward becoming that window to the universe.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, published by W.W Norton

 The book has had an incredible global reception, placing in the top five of the New York Times’ bestseller list for 10 straight weeks. If you’ve ever listened to StarTalk radio, you’ll know that Tyson, who hosts it, definitely has a sense of humor. The book is interspersed with wry observations delivered in Tyson’s inimitable style.    

“After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion,” writes Tyson.

“Not that scientists don’t argue. We do. A lot. But when we do, we typically express opinions about the interpretation of insufficient or ratty data on the bleeding frontier of knowledge. Wherever and whenever a physical law can be involved in the discussion, the discussion is guaranteed to be brief: No, your idea for a perpetual motion machine will never work; it violates well-tested laws of thermodynamics. And without violating momentum laws, you cannot spontaneously levitate and hover above the ground, whether or not you are seated in the lotus position.”

The future of astrophysics promises to be interesting: like science, it is driven by data, and for astrophysics that often involves space missions to gather data and intelligence from space. The great strength of the book is that it helps the average reader keep up with today’s biggest cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

As director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson has been campaigning to “Make America Smart Again”. He has warned that America, which vaulted to becoming a superpower on the back of science, would need more than an intelligence boost if President Donald Trump slashed science funding. No modern American president has been more hostile to federal support for the sciences than Trump, whose 2018 budget request, delivered to Congress earlier this year, calls for massive cuts in spending on scientific and medical research.

At a time when the United States government is systematically withdrawing support financial, institutional and even rhetorical from the scientific community, the blockbuster success of Tyson’s astrophysics book is reaffirming. It’s a testament to an appetite around the world for science discussed with passion and conviction, outside of textbooks. We would do well to put Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry into the hands of young men and women who love science.

 

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

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