Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., (forthcoming May) 2017.
Summary: A clear and concise discussion in understandable terms about the current state of our understanding of astrophysics, everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of the elements on the periodic table, and all the space between the galaxies.
The Big Bang. Quarks. Bosons. Gravity waves. Dark matter. Dark energy. Cosmic background radiation. Quasars. Pulsars. Black holes. Dwarf galaxies. Nebulae. We hear about these things on comedy shows and educational television and in science columns in newsweeklies. They suggest that the universe is even more amazing than the moon, stars, planets, and the faint band of the Milky Way we can see, along with that closest star of all, the Sun.
For as long as we have been on the planet, people have been gazing at the sky and wondering about our place in the cosmos, and how it all worked. Astrophysicists work on the second part of this question, and can tell us, at least by various physical measures, our infinitesimal size in the immensity of all things. There is the curious wonder that we can perceive and study and understand at least something of what we see by our eyes, and through the instruments we use, probe across the immense reaches of space and time. We can apply our understanding of physical laws and our observations to grasp something of the chain of causal events that result in what we see. That is what astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson do (as well as several grad student and faculty friends in astrophysics).
That’s why I wanted to read this new book by Tyson — to understand a little better what my friends are working on. And thanks to Tyson, I can say that indeed, I think I understand a bit better. For example, I understood that the first fraction of a second in the life of the universe was immensely significant to the way things are. I learned that there was an important transition that occurred when the universe was about 380,000 years old that can be detected in the form of cosmic background telescopes, a discovery first made by some Bell Labs telecommunications researchers.
I found out that the space between the galaxies is not empty and may be one of the most interesting things astrophysicists can study. I have friends doing dark matter research, and I discovered that there may be more of this than “visible” matter. At least in terms of the physical chemistry that makes up my body, I learned that Joni Mitchell was right: we are star dust. The stuff of my body was once the stuff generated in the core of stars and in their explosions. “All the light we cannot see” is not just the title of a great novel, but also reminds us that some of the most interesting aspects of light are in portions of the spectra our eyes cannot see.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably the most well-known living writer and speaker on astrophysics, a successor in this work to the late Carl Sagan. He is both an active researcher, and has a knack for explaining this research in understandable terms while ushering us into the wonder he encounters as he studies these things. And that brings me to one of the most fascinating aspects of this book.
Tyson has inserted this statement about himself into his Wikipedia article: “Neil deGrasse Tyson, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.” It is fascinating that he draws the title of his first three chapters from either biblical themes, or a best seller on the life of Christ: “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “On Earth as in the Heavens,” and “Let There Be Light.” Perhaps this is just cleverness in setting up his discussions of the Big Bang, the universality of physical laws, and the origins of light. But it strikes me that for Tyson, these scientific realities supplant the spiritual realities alluded to in the title references. Later in the book, he makes this clearer in his reflections on the cosmic perspective. He writes a series of statements on the cosmic perspective, a few of which I will quote here:
“The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious.
. . .
The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.
The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote. But it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have.
The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.”
While Tyson refuses the term “religion” for what he calls “the cosmic perspective,” it is clear that for him, this is ultimate reality, the really “real.” There is a kind of spirituality in this writing. His research teaches him humility, has a redemptive quality to it (I’m not sure what he means by this) and seems to enhance his solidarity with other human beings and his care for our common home. The laws of physics are a kind of delight to him on which he meditates day and night (cf. Psalm 19).
I’m a Christian theist, and I point these things out in Tyson neither to debate him nor denigrate him. Rather, I found his book important for understanding not only the basics of astrophysics and the current state of the research (which I did) but also for understanding the mind of this scientist, who is humbled and finds beauty in the cosmos, and who struggles with “the lonely, hazardous place” our universe is (a major reason for his agnosticism as I understand it). It helps me understand why he has captured the imagination of many through his writing and media appearances.
Tyson also makes me wonder whether we Christians might do better to enter deeply both into the wonder and the haunting questions he asks than to engage in wars against science. It makes me wonder whether we might sensitively explore what is it about us humble creatures that we have this insatiable curiosity to explore the cosmos, and a sense that despite our objective insignificance, we are significant both individually, and to one another. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry actually invites us to do a very unhurried thing and consider what we are learning about the cosmos and how it relates to the big questions each and all of us face here on earth.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.