Friday, January 19, 2018

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Title: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Publication Date: 5/2/2017
Pages: 222
Genre: Nonfiction
How I Found It: My book club is reading it.
Date Completed: 12/27/17

Summary: Ever wanted to know more about the universe and physics but find scientific writings way beyond your comprehension level? This book was literally written for you.

What I Thought: I probably never would have picked this up if not for the nonfiction branch of my book club. I feel like I say that about every book they pick, but that's part of why I love participating. I always learn something and find myself pushed to think critically. This book was no exception. 

Tyson has become a bit of a scientist celebrity. As weird as I find that cognitively, I also love that we have scientists whom we celebrate and whose careers we follow. Our culture would be a whole lot better off if we tracked a few more STEM professionals a few less reality stars. Tyson even came to Elon University (where Kevin works) to speak at convocation a couple years back, but we didn't get tickets in time. 

If you know me, you know I'm not a science person. It was consistently my worst subject in school. I only passed chemistry by bribing my smartest friend with pizza rolls so she would tutor me. I have a basic understanding of earth science, astronomy, and biology, but chemistry and physics are really beyond the pale for me even now. As much as I hated science classes, I see them as a highly valuable part of my liberal arts education. I am a better person because I had to take those classes. Just like science-minded students are better people because they have to take my humanities classes. 

This is the deepest dive I have done into the science world in....a long time. I watch The Big Bang Theory and I like to watch the new Bill Nye series on Netflix sometimes while I cook, but that's about as far as I go into this world. Tyson's book is, in many ways, the literary equivalent of Bill Nye's show. Thank goodness for scientists who are bringing their work down to a normal human level for people like me. Just like those science classes in school, this stuff makes me a better, more rounded human being.

Ok, ok. So, the book. 

There were definitely parts of this book that were still over my head. Tyson does a wonderful job bringing super complex ideas down to a more basic level, but even then... For the most part, though, I grasped what he was talking about. I learned a lot. For instance, did you know that spheres are the most naturally occurring shape? I found that totally fascinating and loved Tyson's suggestion that we would wildly reduce global shipping costs if all packages where spherical. It also made me think that my dear friend from college who is getting her Ph.D. in math and specializing in (as I understand it) theoretical geometry which takes place on the surfaces of shapes like spheres may have a more practical future than we know. 

Tyson brings his caustic sense of humor to nearly every page. He is not afraid to pick fights - small or big. He calls out those of us who were mildly traumatized when Pluto was declared to no longer be classified as a planet. However, he also has a very condescending view of religion, something I did not appreciate. Tyson is condescending about a lot of things, actually. If you ever look at his Twitter feed, this will be totally confirmed. He's arrogant; there's no doubt about it. That bleeds through in parts of the book and I found it grating. I appreciate that he is trying to bring the benefit of his intellect down to us mere mortals, but I don't like being talked down to, especially not regarding my faith.

Contrary to his near certain desire, however, the opening chapters of the book actually reinforced my faith. The first chapter walks step by step through the theory of the Big Bang and what would have happened in each nanosecond as the universe began. The subsequent chapters take it from there, explaining how our planet, solar system, and galaxy are theorized to have developed. Reading these chapters was fascinating. Having been raised and mostly educated with a very literal interpretation of the biblical creation story, a lot of this was new information to me (and maybe would be to most readers; Tyson goes into a lot of detail). But the majesty of these events was awe-inspiring to me. As I told Kevin, Tyson description of these theories made me more convinced that a higher power had a part in creating our universe, not less. The intricacies of the Big Bang seem just as miraculous to me as the Biblical account of creation, if not more so. 

Whether you consider yourself a "science person" or not, this book is a fascinating read. It covers more ground...or, er, space...than I expected and was much more readable than I expected it to be more me, a science layperson. If you can get past Tyson's galaxy-sized ego then you'll learn a whole lot about the galaxy in which we live and the rules which govern it. 

Quotes I Loved:

  • "The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."
  • "People who believe they are ignorant have neither looked for, nor stumbled upon, the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe."
  • "Other relenting skeptics might declare that 'seeing is believing' - an approach to life that works well in many endeavors, including mechanical engineering, fishing, and perhaps dating. It's also good, apparently, for residents of Missouri. But tit doesn't make for good science. Science is not just about seeing, it's about measuring, preferably with something that's not your own eyes, which are inextricably conjoined with the baggage of your brain. That baggage is more often than not a satchel of preconceived ideas, post-conceived notions, and outright bias."

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: Yeah, maybe. I plan to recommend it to my students when we cover our chapter on science.
If You Liked This, Try: The Sixth Extinction / The Martian / Origin

A Reduced Review: Though Tyson's personality can be a little much, he does an incredible job breaking down complex scientific ideas for those of us who maybe didn't do so hot in high school science but still appreciate having a fuller understanding of the universe in which we live. 

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