The Popularization of Science
A Book Review of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Review by Abigail Hughes
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Pages 222. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017. ISBN 978-393-60939-4. Available at the observatory library.
Before I begin, I want to provide the disclaimer that this month’s review is a little long winded. I wanted to express my ongoing frustration with different subjects of sciences after they become popularized. If this review starts to appear as more of an essay than a review per-say, then please accept that that’s exactly what this is. Every time I tried to shorten this review I ended up tangentially ranting about the overall issue which is modeled by the book. Either this review would have been two paragraphs or two pages, so please forgive the chaotic nature of this review. For those who are only interested in learning if this a good book for you to read then here’s a shortcut: if I were to say that Mercury is the hottest planet in the solar system, and you say “totally” then this book is for you. However, if your response is “no it’s Venus, how are you qualified to be reviewing anything related to astronomy?!”, then this book is absolutely unequivocally not for you. Now, with this not-so-brief warning over and done with I say this: it is up to you to read onward into the mad ravings of a lunatic. Skip now or forever hold your peace.
For this review, I have commented on the issues with the popularization of subjects in science as demonstrated through Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s book. I, for one, have a special place in my heart for introductory books on different topics written with the average person in mind. After all, that’s what lead me to, and helped develop, my passion for astronomy. However, there is an art to balancing content with accessibility, an art which I do not believe Tyson achieved in his book.
Tyson starts the book with a brief introduction which states that the book is intended to be “brief but meaningful introduction to the field” (12). The key phrase being “brief but meaningful”; a totally subjective concept. After reading the first two chapters I knew that this book was not what I expected or wanted it to be. Brief but meaningful to me meant the recent history of physics, the origin of the fundamental equations and theories still used currently, and the pressing issues astrophysicists are facing today. I wanted charts, diagrams, graphs, equations. But what I want and what the mass wants are, apparently, two very different things.
With astrophysics in the title (not to mention it being the first word), I would expect a strong emphasis on the technicalities of astronomy. This book, although not the only one guilty of these effects, is the direct result of the popularization of a complex subject. Much of the book focuses on the history of astronomy and its development as a science. There is a focus on some complex subjects such as dark matter and energy, the fabric of space-time, and the nature of spheres. However, there is a lack of depth, leaving the reader with a rudimentary understanding of the concepts. Ultimately what this book exemplifies is how the popularization of a subject causes the “fluffification” (a made-up word I invented for this phenomenon) of the subject. Essentially the subject becomes light and fluffy with all the interesting content lost so that the average person can grasp some of the fundamental concepts of the subject. This phenomenon has also been seen in before with medicine, law, computer science, and chemistry, to name a few.
Despite all my complaints about false advertising, pandering to mass audiences, and creating fluffy content, this book does offer value to people with little to no knowledge about astronomy. This book was not written with somewhat knowledgeable hobbyists in mind, a fact I had to keep reminding myself of while reading. There are countless books which introduce the average person to astronomy, ones with more detail, information, and objective content. However, updating these introductory books allows a new generation and audience to read the writing of a relevant social figure head. Tyson has a strong social influence, just as previously seen by Carl Sagan. Tyson is simply capitalizing on his and astronomy’s booming popularity in order to share the wonders of the universe; and as much as I might try, I cannot be upset with that. As promised by the book’s title, it is consumable by people in a hurry. Despite a hectic schedule, I was able to read the book in one week which is more than reasonable considering the size of the book. For the most part the writing is simple and easy to comprehend and able to reach the point in an understandable way. A variety of subjects are covered, allowing the reader to learn about more topics briefly, probably the most ideal format for the general public.
If you have managed to stick through these ramblings then quite frankly, you deserve an award. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is not a terrible book, it’s not even a bad book. It’s simply a bad book for people who already have some knowledge of astrophysics and astronomy. If you are entirely new to the subject, then do not let this review prevent you from reading the book. If utilized properly, Tyson’s book could be excellent for helping people find direction to the type of astronomy they are most drawn to. If you are going to read this book, then please keep in mind these 3 things: 1. this is barely scraping the surface of any subject mentioned in the book; 2. it is not all-inclusive of the numerous subjects involved and connected to astrophysics; 3. if there is any part of the book that draws your interest, consider doing further research on the subject.