Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson, W.W. Norton & Company | Book review by Jim Scott
I. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017
II. Letters from an Astrophysicist, 2019
Tyson is a contemporary American astronomer, science writer and communicator, perhaps as famous today as was the late-Carl Sagan in the ‘80s.
Sagan, as director of Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies and collaborator on Viking’s Mars probes, and Pioneer and Voyager probes outside the solar system, and Tyson, as director of Hayden Planetarium and television host of the National Geographic and Fox program series on the universe, have both earned prestigious public awards for their work. Tyson has openly demurred to the prospect of filling Sagan’s shoes. So be it. But do not his modesty tempt you to ignore these tidy books by Tyson!
His ‘Astrophysics’ is a triumph of clarity and succinctness. A small book of 200 pages, delivered in 12 chapters, starting provocatively with Ch. 1-The Greatest Story Ever Told”, ending with encouragement to the reader in Ch. 12 to grasp mankind’s place in the cosmos, and eschew the “childish view that the universe revolves around us.” In between, Tyson delivers accessibility to some of the most mind-numbing concepts that the overwhelming majority of the public would otherwise never seek, never taste, much less digest. Black holes? Inter-galactic space? Neutrinos?
But, then, you might ask, “So what?” Do we, who do not wish to spend countless hours in labs or behind telescopes, really care what brainiac astronomers-astrophysicists-cosmologists think about? Maybe, maybe not. Or, is this another unread, cocktail-table adornment signaling to your house guests how scientifically sophisticated and intellectually curious you are? Certainly not!
Tyson set out to capture your interest in joining him through his lens as a passionate educator in exploring the universe, and focusing on the nuts and bolts of his craft (astrophysics): that niche in the astronomer’s world that studies the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies, and how they behave; exploring the nature of space and time, exploring how mankind fits within the universe and how the universe fits within us.
Tyson may indeed capture you as he has me. Anticipating that, he has followed with ‘Letters’, a remarkably insightful, compact compilation of decades of his science correspondence (with whomever!), “a vignette of the wisdom (he) has mustered to teach, enlighten, and ultimately commiserate with the curious mind.” As in art, one might recall having read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, advising a student of poetry to feel-love-seek truth in understanding and engaging the world of art. “Go into yourself,” beautifully explained by Rilke.
Likewise, in science, brilliantly conveyed in Tyson’s thoughtful, sensitive letters.