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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil de Grasse Tyson.
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1-Page Summary1-Page Book Summary of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Since humans first looked up, we’ve wondered about the sun, the stars, and where we fit in the universal scheme. In the last century, we’ve developed the tools to look farther out into the night sky than our ancestors ever dreamed possible. Our instruments are powerful enough to detect images of the very early universe, yet everything we’ve learned has taught us that our ignorance about the universe still outstrips our knowledge.

That may seem disheartening, but Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests that it’s not. Instead, he says it’s exciting to know that there’s so much left to discover about the universe. When we ponder the vastness of the universe and how tiny our place is within it, we realize how trivial our differences are and how much we should value this one world we have. The study of astrophysics is important because it teaches perspective and humility. In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson explains the current state of astrophysics in layman’s terms and argues for the real-world benefit of looking at ourselves as part of a larger universe.

Often describing himself...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary Why Study Astrophysics?

Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that applies discoveries in chemistry and physics to observations of the stars. Of all the sciences, astrophysics may seem the farthest removed from our everyday lives. Tyson argues, however, that the study of the cosmos provides the human race with a crucial sense of perspective while answering our fundamental drive to understand where we came from. In this section, we’ll look at how science has stripped humanity of its archaic belief that we hold a special place at the center of the universe, while it also affirms what we share in common and provides a vast new frontier for discoveries that may transform how we understand reality.

We humans like to think that we’re special, but Tyson describes how over and over, science knocks us off whatever pedestal we climb on. Once, we believed that the sky revolved around us. Over time, astronomers learned that the Earth is just a planet, and that the sun is only one among the billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Then, we discovered there were other galaxies out there—more, in fact, than there are stars in our own. And what if the theories of the...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary The Basic Assumptions of Science

While exploring the universe opens our minds, it’s important to work within the constraints of well-established scientific ways of thinking. Science relies on basic, grounding principles and assumptions that have been confirmed through repeated tests and observations. Tyson explains the most fundamental assumptions that lie at the heart of astrophysics—specifically, that science is universal—while also talking about what happens when science meets the unknown and has to be reframed to include new information.

Science in Flux

A layman may ask how science can be believed if its precepts can change and are subject to question. Part of this comes from the fact that science is taught in schools as a collection of facts with only lip service given to the process of discovery and rigorous double-checking of results. It’s more accurate to describe science as a process that helps us zero in on objective reality while systematically eliminating our preconceptions. The process of science...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary The Full Spectrum of Light

In order to establish physical laws, the scientist’s primary tool is observation. While our ancestors relied on what they could see, today we have access to a whole invisible spectrum of light beyond what our eyes can perceive. Many previously unknown types of invisible light have been discovered in the last 200 years, and though their first use in astronomy was purely accidental, today they are used for the bulk of observations astronomers make of the universe.

The fact there’s such a thing as invisible light was discovered by William Herschel in 1800. It was known in his time that white light could be split into multiple colors using a prism. Tyson describes how Herschel used thermometers to measure the temperature of each different color. His “control” thermometer, placed just beyond the red end of the spectrum, shouldn’t have measured a temperature increase, but it did. Herschel had found infrared light at a frequency below what the eye can detect.

(Shortform note: William Herschel had a knack for discovering the invisible. He’s most famous for being the first person since prehistory to discover a new planet—namely, [Uranus, which is too faint to see with the naked...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary The Big Bang

By observing the sky in all available wavelengths, astronomers have worked for the last century to answer one of humanity’s most basic questions: “Where do we come from?” The branch of astrophysics that tackles this subject is the science of cosmology, the study of the origin of the universe itself. Tyson tells the story of the birth of the cosmos, from the origins of the basic physical forces, the creation of matter and the first rays of light, to the formation of the stars and all the chemical elements that make up the world we know.

The Birth of the Big Bang Theory

Our conception of the Big Bang Theory began in 1926 with astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was the first to observe that the other galaxies are receding away from our own. The prevailing scientific belief at the time was that the universe existed in a “steady state” without any significant change. Hubble’s observations, however, suggested that in the past the universe was...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary Dark Matter

In addition to expanding what we know about the universe, our deep space observations also reveal that there are major gaps in our understanding of the cosmos. The first of these is the “dark matter” problem—the fact that there appears to be far more gravity in the universe than all the matter we observe can account for. Dark matter’s effects have been known for nearly a century, but to date we can only tell what it is not, though our observations of the early universe give some tantalizing clues.

A Primer on Gravity

To understand the problem dark matter poses, it’s important to know the basics of gravity. It was first defined by Isaac Newton as the force by which any two objects with mass attract each other. For instance, just as Earth’s gravity exerts a pull on the mass of your body, your body also exerts a pull on the Earth. Newton couldn’t explain how this force works between objects that aren’t touching each other, such as the Earth and its moon, but [he formulated a law that predicted exactly how much force objects exert on each...

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry Summary Dark Energy

As mysterious as dark matter is, it isn’t the biggest puzzle in cosmology. In recent decades, astronomers have witnessed a mysterious force they’ve named “dark energy” that’s accelerating the universe’s expansion. Though the theoretical underpinnings of dark energy go back to Einstein’s equations of relativity, its existence wasn’t even guessed at until recent years. At the moment, we’re ignorant of its true nature, but Tyson reminds us that that’s the condition under which scientific exploration thrives.

Tyson traces dark energy’s theoretical roots back to a concept that Einstein thought was a mistake in his equations. When Einstein developed general relativity, no one knew that the universe was expanding. To explain why the universe wasn’t collapsing under its own gravity, Einstein included a value in his formulae that he called the “cosmological constant.” It was a placeholder for an unknown force that pushed against the pull of gravity, though Einstein didn’t know what it might represent. When the universe was discovered to be expanding as if from a giant explosion, Einstein threw away his cosmological constant, thinking he’d been in error.

(Shortform note: One way to...

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Shortform Exercise: Consider Your Place in the Cosmos

The universe is far bigger than a human mind can possibly grasp, yet astrophysicists like Tyson aren’t troubled by our cosmic insignificance. Rather, he says, understanding our place in the universe gives us perspective on our lives and should teach us to value each other and our fragile world.

Imagine looking down from an airplane so high that it’s hard to make out roads and cities. Now imagine pulling even farther away and looking down on Earth from the edge of space. You see how thin the atmosphere is and how indistinct are any signs of human life. And yet, below you are billions of people. From this height, does it matter what language they speak, what they had for breakfast, or how much money they have? When looking down on the human race from this distance, how does that change how you think about cultural differences?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Why Study Astrophysics?
  • The Basic Assumptions of Science
  • The Full Spectrum of Light
  • The Big Bang
  • Dark Matter
  • Dark Energy
  • Exercise: Consider Your Place in the Cosmos