When I think about the universe, distant galaxies and the concept of time I feel easily overwhelmed. The cosmos seems detached from my earthly, daily life with my meaningless human problems. To understand it seems to require complex mathematics and in-depth proficiency in advanced physics. This often leads to a feeling of intimidation. Something observed throughout human history. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a master of translating the comprehensive and complex theories of astrophysics into layman’s terms. He’s quite the opposite of being intimidated when it comes to the universe. With his concise and intriguing book Astrophysics For People In A Hurry he offers an in-route for us mere mortals to learn more about the universe and by extension – us.
I generally don’t like hardcover editions but this one is in a perfect size to page ratio, which only increased my excitement. Appropriate reader’s break points are strategically placed every other twenty pages. This creates a welcoming reader’s feel of brevity of a book that is already edited down to just 208 pages. Rest assured though Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers on his reputation to explain the science of the universe as a human endeavor: the first few chapters cover the origins of our story. Explaining the big bang theory that is not a TV show with an historic account enriched with analogies such as
“we are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”
Against this backdrop, Neil deGrasse Tyson continues to detail the concepts of orbiting planets, which form galaxies. Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy. Examining galaxy clusters with basic laws of physics revealed dark matter “which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter exists, waiting to be discovered.” And if planets, galaxies, multiverses and dark matter aren’t blowing your mind already then dark energy might just get you there. Dark energy is presumably “a quantum effect where the vacuum of space, instead of being empty, actually seethes with particles and their antimatter counterparts. They pop in and out of existence in pairs, and don’t last long enough to be measured.”
Next, Neil deGrasse Tyson does us all a favor by refreshing our memory of the periodic table in a short chemistry of the universe breakdown. It’s remarkable that I could unclutter some semblance of understanding throughout this section having loathed chemistry class in high school. Did you know that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the second largest consumer of helium second only to the U.S. military? Or that uranium, neptunium and plutonium all follow one another in the periodic table and all lend their names to later discovered planets? Except for Pluto, of course, who was added as a planet under false pretenses assuming it’d be equal in size and mass to our earth (It isn’t. And Pluto is not a planet.) In his concluding remarks, Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates the humbling effects of cosmology on our existence as we humans are a mere smudge on the hourglass of time. He offers a philosophical way forward to set aside human conflict for our drive to explore and grow our minds.
Astrophysics For People In A Hurry is a page-turner, but not as easy as one would hope. Some preexisting knowledge will help to follow the astrophysics theories presented in this book. Albeit some theories were over my head anyway. Nonetheless, the message of this book is not so much about feeling overwhelmed and intimidated but an openness to learning, exploring and to embrace the unknown. Neil deGrasse Tyson does well communicate that we’re not just part of this universe, but its core ingredients are within us. We are the universe.
I’ll leave you with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s eloquent yet mind-boggling answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?”