I’m not exactly a scientist. For all that my mother has a PhD in Cell Biology and my girlfriend works in tech, I didn’t major in a STEM field, and had to drop almost every science class I attempted to take in college to save my GPA from ruin. All that said, I maintain an insatiable curiosity about the universe, and so when I was walking through the bookstore and stumbled upon Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I just knew that I needed to buy myself a copy.
In his preface, Neil deGrasse Tyson offers this book as something for those who are “too busy to absorb the cosmos via classes, textbooks, or documentaries, and […] nonetheless seek a brief and meaningful introduction to the field,” (p, 12). Personally, I have watched a documentary or two, seen all episodes of Crash Course Astronomy twice or more, and in fact spent an entire semester in an astronomy class, so I do not exactly fit into this category. That is not to say that I did not find this book enriching and valuable, because I very much did. While this book was not written exactly for me, I nevertheless enjoyed it immensely, as the narrative format kept me informed, supplementing information that I already knew, but softening the spiky edges that the math* had created for me while in my courses or watching videos.
Each chapter of the book can for the most part be read as an independent essay, though to get the big picture I read them all, and each flowed easily into the next. That said, they could each be read alone, especially since the sparse but informative footnotes made a brief repeat of important details (picoseconds, I’m looking at you). Personally I’m a big fan of footnotes, but I think that even for those that don’t love them as much as me and Nabokov those within Astrophysics for People in a Hurry are tolerable since they are few and contain only that which is essential and/or funny.
Starting with the big bang, deGrasse Tyson takes us through the beginning of the universe, blending the facts as we know them with how we know them and thus pairing together science and history as the seamless entities they are in a chapter literally titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” All of the subsequent chapters focus on an important concept and/or issue in the field of astrophysics, including the much-misunderstood (and distinct!) concepts of dark matter and dark energy that get so much traction within science fiction narratives. Not to mention that in all of the places relevant to it deGrasse Tyson seriously deliberates on the concept of a multiverse, which makes my little nerd heart sing.
The book’s comedic elements are lighthearted and evenly paced, such that I felt both informed and entertained. Any time I might have felt that there was too much information being imported to my brain there would be a brief quip about Pluto to make me laugh.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is not just an excellent outline of what we know about the universe (though it is that) but also a treatise on how viewing life and existence on a cosmic level can inform us as sentient beings to see ourselves as but a mote in the universe. What I’ve taken away from this book is that what we don’t know is vastly larger in quantity than what we do, but staying curious and empathizing with one another is what makes our experiences meaningful. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an even a passing interest in astronomy, since the universe is even more amazing than they may think.
*I’m not actually as bad at math as I act like I am, but what little skill I have lies with basic algebra rather than calculus or geometry.