Book Talk: The universe — 2 by Tyson

When I started college, we students were required to take at least three courses in “hard science,” (i.e., chemistry, physics, biology, etc.). One of the courses had to be a “lab science.”

At the time, my major was Literature and Creative Writing. That fascination only lasted about two years, but we aspiring young Hemingways who planned to pen the next great American novel had no interest in science. So, I took astronomy and geology (which I thought would be easy), and biology (to satisfy the lab requirement). My grades, respectively, were “C,” “C,” and “C.” In other words, I did just enough to get through the courses with barely acceptable grades.

After changing majors twice, getting a few college degrees, and teaching college for a number of years, I wished that I’d paid more attention to the “throw-away” courses. Over the years, I’ve tried to catch up a bit in geology and biology because each seemed to be important in my study of environmental social problems. But I never took much interest in astronomy. Until…

I was watching a late-night TV talk show, and the guest was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who is the director of the world-famous Hayden Planetarium, noted author, and host of both radio and TV programs. He was not only informative, but also very entertaining. When he published “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” (2017, 222 pages) I bought a copy and loved it.

I was especially fascinated by his description of what happened in the first trillionth of a second of the “big bang.” Then he described the aftermath in incremental units. The book, only 7” by 4 1/2,” is truly a delight.

When he published “A Brief Welcome to the Universe: A Pocket-Sized Tour” (2021, 236 pages) in the same format, I immediately ordered it. The book is co-authored by fellow physicists Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott (both of Princeton University), and it contains a number of photographs and illustrations to supplement the excellent prose. Like the book, it is chock full of interesting tidbits. For example, if you wear a wedding ring, you might be interested to know that the gold in the band was “likely forged in a collision of two neutron stars billions of years ago.”

Most of us have trouble understand what a billion of anything means. To make this term understandable to human minds, Tyson explains why cows are afraid of McDonald’s. McDonald’s advertises, “Over 99 Billion Sold.” Actually, the franchise has sold many more than 100 billion hamburgers. Tyson illustrates the huge number by explaining that if you lay the burgers side by side, you’d circumnavigate the world 216 times and have enough left over to start stacking them. The burger stack would go to the moon and back.

The length of one hundred billion hamburgers is like a hop, skip, and a jump to astrophysicists. Tyson and his colleagues do a great job of illustrating that in “A Brief Welcome to the Universe.”


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at