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Outer space. Not much else compares with the grandeur of the cosmos and the fascination that comes with it. In the vast space above our heads lie planets, stars, moons and comets. But there’s more: dark matter, dark energy and supermassive black holes, all of which we cannot see. In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson journeys the reader through the cosmos; from the infant universe’s first one-trillionth of a second, to the beginnings of Earth and life.
Tyson is a renowned astrophysicist, known for his thirteen-part TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as well as over a dozen books and hours of lecture and interview material that can be found on the internet. In what felt like a quick tour around astrophysics’ most interesting landmarks, Tyson distils the intricacies of space into twelve digestible chapters centered on a range of subjects, including the Big Bang, how stars are born and die, and black holes. From the realization that there is more to see than just the visible, to the technologies and telescopes astronomers use, Tyson’s fourteenth book is a dense snapshot of astrophysics and its many questions. The author explores these areas at a level of complexity that is intelligible to the non-expert. As in his previous works, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry ultimately aims to instill an excitement and curiosity for the cosmos in its readers, regardless of their astrophysics background.
Chapter seven, The Cosmos on the Table, was particularly captivating. Here, Tyson recounts the synthetic production of radioactive technetium, a non-naturally occurring element made synthetically. Despite its absence on Earth, technetium has been detected in the atmospheres of a class of red giant stars. However, the element has a half-life of just a few million years, significantly shorter than the age of a red star. If the technetium was present at a red star’s birth, all of it would have by now decayed, implying that technetium must have been made in the star during its lifetime. Yet, no known mechanism for the synthesis of technetium in these stellar environments exists. Technetium’s bizarre natural occurrence inside distant stars is just one of many peculiarities Tyson discusses to grow the reader’s curiosity.
Although written concisely, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry isn’t necessarily a quick read. If you do not have any prior knowledge, the narrative regarding quantum mechanics and relativity may at first feel overwhelming. Fortunately, most chapters are short — no longer than twenty pages — making this book easy to put down and then dive back into. The hardcover is light and compact, and there is an elegance to Tyson’s confinement of the universe’s many stories into a book of this size.
If you are familiar with Tyson’s works, you may find him repeating some of his thinking here. The chapters are adapted from essays Tyson wrote between 1997 – 2007; there is some overlap between chapters for this reason. Discussions of dark energy and Einstein’s general relativity are met many times in the book; however, paired with Tyson’s signature compelling narrative, these “repetitions” don’t fall short of engrossing.
In the final chapter, Tyson’s tour of the cosmos culminates with a reminder: to see the world with a cosmic perspective, with an appreciation of the beauty that lies within us and in our surroundings, even if what it is in focus is light years away. There is arguably nothing more sobering than acknowledging the speck that is Earth, relative to the vastness of space. Perhaps it should be regarded as privilege that human brains can even engage with the cosmos in the ways astrophysics allows us. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a call to seeing the world with a cosmic perspective, a humbling and informed outlook on the universe and our place in it.
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