Skip to main content

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such as ‘Secrets of the Universe’. But it would still have been astrophysics by stealth, because it’s only thanks to physics that we understand anything beyond our own planet. As Tyson puts it: ‘the universality of physical laws makes the cosmos a marvellously simple place’.

Although the book is new, its chapters (now suitably updated) originated over a period of many years as self-contained magazine articles. They cover a wide range of topics, from the big bang and dark matter, via the electromagnetic spectrum and the periodic table, to asteroids and exoplanets. The coverage isn’t comprehensive; some of the most obvious subjects, like stellar evolution and black holes, are barely touched on. That isn’t a problem, though. The book doesn’t set out to explain everything we know about the universe, but to show that what we do know about it, we know because of physics. That’s just as interesting, and much rarer at a popular science level.

Personally, I loved the book – and I would have loved it even more when I was 15 years old, and my knowledge of physics was largely aspirational rather than actual. In those days, the book would probably have been written by someone like Isaac Asimov – and that’s a fair comparison, because Tyson’s style is a lot like Asimov’s. It manages to be clever, engaging, witty and lucid all at the same time. I kept finding myself stopping to read bits again because they were so good. Here are three examples of the kind of thing I mean:
  • On quarks: ‘The most familiar quarks are ... well, there are no familiar quarks. Each of their six subspecies has been assigned an abstract name that serves no philological, philosophical or pedagogical purpose, except to distinguish it from the others.’
  • On dark energy: ‘When you estimate the amount of repulsive vacuum pressure that arises from the abbreviated lives of virtual particles, the result is more than 10120 times larger than the experimentally determined value of the cosmological constant. This is a stupidly large factor, leading to the biggest mismatch between theory and observation in the history of science.’
  • On the cosmic microwave background: ‘The molecule cyanogen gets excited by exposure to microwaves. If the microwaves are warmer ... they excite the molecule a little more. In the big bang model, the cyanogen in distant, younger galaxies gets bathed in a warmer cosmic background than the cyanogen in our own Milky Way galaxy. And that’s exactly what we observe (you can’t make this stuff up).’
Although the book’s aimed at beginners, I have to admit that rather spooky last point came as news to me. And it wasn’t the only thing I learned. I  never realised there was enough energy in a single cosmic ray particle to knock a golf ball across a putting green. I didn’t know thunderstorms could produce gamma rays. Or that, if we could see Jupiter’s magnetosphere, it would be several times bigger than a full Moon in the sky. 

All in all, this is a book I can heartily recommend to anyone, regardless of how much or how little they know about physics.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…