Inspiring Young Readers
Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson with Gregory Mone
Neil DeGrasse Tyson has become something of an astrophysics superstar over recent years and follows in the footsteps of those other great communicators, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and, at a more popular level, Brian Cox. I find it reassuring that popular culture is still able to embrace cerebral scientists as heroes in a time when it feels we’re in danger of being overwhelmed by non-entity celebrities who owe their fame to nothing more than their capacity for self-promotion. Not only is this a tribute to the brilliance of these scientists but to their subject matter – I would defy anyone to have even the most modest engagement with the ideas of astrophysics and not be awestruck by the implications of what it uncovers. It’s a subject that leaves you feeling two quite conflicting emotions – I really want to know more but I’m probably too dim to understand it.
That’s certainly true of me. I’d probably be exactly the type of person that Tyson’s 2017 best seller, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is aimed at. It’s a book that tries to untangle some of the more difficult ideas of modern astrophysics for the lay-person but without treating them as half-wits. In this new book, he’s taken up the challenge of turning this book into something that can be read and understood by younger readers. He’s ably helped in his task by Gregory Mone who has some past experience of adapting adult material for younger readers and it's probably worth saying at this stage that the book they've produced isn't age specific – younger readers across quite an age range would find this an exciting read, as would plenty of adults. It lays an excellent foundation for trying to get to grips not only with complexity but with just how thrilling some of the current ideas are that scientists have about the origins and nature of the universe.
Tyson is admirably straightforward in his descriptions and doesn’t lapse into being condescending or patronising and I especially like the way he’s happy to say that there are things we just don’t know and phenomena we don’t understand. But it’s also important to point out that these ideas aren’t easy – even in the hands of a great communicator, the underlying principles and ideas are complex . Tyson helps in this process by providing useful illustrations, diagrams and break-out information boxes that spell out specific issues in more detail.
For me, however, the undoubted stars of this book are the great mysteries of space that remain unresolved. Just what is the dark matter and dark energy that makes the universe work? Is there life on other planets and what would it be like? Could we ever travel faster than the speed of light with the aid of wormholes?
And then, of course, there’s that old perennial – where did the universe come from and what existed before the Big Bang? As Tyson himself says, maybe someone reading this book will be the scientist of the future who makes the great breakthrough in being able to answer one or more of these questions. To tempt the younger reader into a life of science he encourages them to develop what he calls a ‘cosmic perspective’ – a set of guidelines to help the reader develop their process of innovative, critical thought. He postulates 12 of these cosmic perspectives and many of them can be taken as ways of thinking to govern our wider view of life and its purpose. For example:
“The cosmic perspective helps us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to realise that life is about more than money, popularity, clothes, sport, or even grades.”
“The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that we lose our ability to reason, leaving us quick to believe anything we’re told.”
But if I had to select one Tyson quotation to leave you with and which captures the spirit of this book, it would be this:
“Why it’s thrilling to be clueless.
By this point you may have noticed that I’ve used this term ‘clueless’ more than once. People often think of scientists as arrogant and always sure of themselves. But we love it when the universe stumps us. We love being clueless. It’s completely exciting. It’s what gets us to run to work every day. As a scientist you learn to embrace ignorance, or not knowing. If you know all the answers, you’ve got nothing to work on, and you might just as well go home.”
The book is published by W.W. Norton and, if there isn't a copy on the shelf, you can order it from your local independent bookshop.