Astrophysics for People in a Hurry: Take Your Time

Oct 24, 2018 | Issue 4, Stories

Photo of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry author Neil deGrasse Tyson by Dan Deitch for PBS/NOVA Origins

By Emily Bulmer

 

How much time do you need to understand the universe?

Without turning the question into a thought experiment about infinity, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) provides a well-constructed timeline of the human understanding of our universe in 144 pages. He hits the highlights, from the first second of the Big Bang through the key scientific discoveries that shape our understanding of the past to our imaginings of the future.

From the opening line, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” deGrasse Tyson shoulders the obligation himself, taking great care and enthusiasm in explaining everything from quarks to black holes. Although the book is small, it would more aptly be compared to a neutron star than a light read: The ideas come as fast and furious as asteroids, so unless you are actually an astrophysicist, be prepared to look up a few things up as you go. One could read Astrophysics in a hurry, but I got a lot more out of it by taking it slow.

Understanding things we can’t see is difficult, whether they are too small or simply too far away. This is a real problem for astrophysics, but deGrasse Tyson helps the reader by using comparisons and examples that the average person could understand. He also does a wonderful job of highlighting how amazing these discoveries really are.

For example, he tells a story of two researches at Bell Telephone Laboratories, diligently trying to improve a communications signal, but being frustrated by a persistent interference coming from every direction of the sky. Try as they might, even after scrubbing the receiver clean of bird poop, they were unable to eliminate the “noise.” Puzzled, the pair wrote a paper discussing their findings. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the cosmic microwave background. This discovery changed astrophysics from a theoretical science to an experimental science and provided the means to measure and map the birth of the universe. Not bad for a Monday afternoon at the lab.

This discovery changed astrophysics from a theoretical science to an experimental science and provided the means to measure and map the birth of the universe. Not bad for a Monday afternoon at the lab.

deGrasse Tyson also spends time on quotidian phenomenon. Giving context and providing details that provide a greater appreciation for everything from prisms to LED lightbulbs, he builds a sense of wonder throughout the book. Did you know that the near-perfect solar eclipses we experience on Earth are quite uncommon in the rest of our solar system? The moon is 1/400th the size of the sun and, at the same time, 400 times closer to the earth than the sun, providing the absolutely perfect ratio to show off the sun’s corona. Amazing.

Amusing anecdotes, like how we ended up with a planet called “Uranus” instead of a planet called “George,” as well as a smattering of one liners, in-jokes for physics nerds (“obey gravity”) and references to popular culture make the book humorous and engaging.

Beyond the pure facts, I also enjoyed how deGrasse Tyson spends time speculating about problems like, how difficult would it be for aliens to communicate with Earth? He uses this question to frame facts about pulsar stars, cosmochemistry and spectroscopy in a fun and compelling narrative. As it turns out, if alien life did try to contact Earth, it is probable that Chinese scientists would pick up the signal on FAST, their Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope nicknamed “Heavenly Eye,” which is the largest radio telescope in the world.

Accurate to the dedication, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a great book “for all those who are too busy to read fat books yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos.” I enjoyed it a lot, with the gentle caveat to take your time; though the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, this short book is best read slowly.

Emily Bulmer is a freelance writer living in Smithers, B.C. on the territory of House Gitemden, Wet'suwet'en First Nation. When she has time, she loves exploring her corner of the universe: the mountains and rivers of the Skeena watershed.