2017-09-28 / Opinions

Book Review

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
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I was an English major. My closest encounter with astronomy or physics was to learn which star constellation was which. However, I have seen Neil deGrasse Tyson on TV and understood (for the moment) what he was talking about. He is able to make what many of us consider difficult subjects clear and intriguing,

In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson seeks to give us “a foundational fluency in all the major ideas and discoveries that drive our modern understanding of the universe.” The opening quotation is “For all those who are too busy to read fat books, Yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos.”

He admits that even astrophysicists do not know what happened before the beginning of the universe. “What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning.” He says that physical laws make the cosmos a simple place to a scientist, but that human nature is infinitely more daunting.

Tyson is amazingly knowledgeable; in addition to writing with clarity, he includes interesting anecdotes about scientists and their discoveries while inserting amusing phrases. For instance, Fritz Zwicky analyzed individual galaxies, combining insights with colorful expressions, and “an impressive ability to antagonize his colleagues.”

Each chapter covers a single fundamental topic, like the formation of the elements or the nature of interplanetary space. He defines words that I didn’t know existed. One nanosecond is a billionth of a second, and one picosecond is a trillionth of a second. Those definitions are in his chapter about light.

The observable universe may contain a hundred billion galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is named for its appearance to the naked eye. Our pair of nearest galaxies are named the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds in honor of Ferdinand Magellan who identified them in his around-the-world voyage in 1519.

Gravity, the most familiar of nature’s forces, is the best and least understood phenomena in nature. It is involved in the longest-standing unsolved mystery in astrophysics: Why does the Coma cluster of galaxies not fly apart since its members are moving more rapidly than their escape velocity? The study of gravity also led to the discovery of the still-mysterious “dark matter.”

By convention, moons are named for the Greek personalities in the life of the Greek counterpart to the Roman god after whom the planet was named. Thus, Jupiter has Io and Europa. Uranus has moons named instead for Shakespearean characters like Desdemona and Juliet. He mentions Saturn and the Cassini space probe (recently deceased) but doesn’t go into details.

Tyson concludes this small, fascinating book by suggesting that we try to keep a “cosmic perspective,” recognizing our place in the universe. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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