The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 23 March 2016

The Sky is not the Limit

Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is quite well-known these days, perhaps most because of his recent compelling reboot of Cosmos, though he has been in the public eye as a highly visible media commentator on all things astrophysical for decades. His personal style appears self-effacing, humorous, intelligent, and that of a man secure in the notion that he knows a lot about the universe. As open-minded as his scientific training requires him to be, he can seem a little bit arrogant and unwilling to admit some of his wrongs. But, overall, he seems to be a good guy, very much concerned with education and the power that a good education can provide. He isn't patient with false notions of educational standards, remarking repeatedly that good or bad performance at school is not a good predictor of brilliance or success later in life (though it helps).

Tyson has written numerous books, almost all of them about the universe and our place within it. This small volume, published in 2004, is a memoir of his youth, and some of his experiences on his rise in his profession and in his visibility in the media. Along the way, he discusses scientific literacy, particularly in an engaging passage about math, science, and the wondrous mathematical equations that describe astrophysical phenomena. He discusses the role of race in his career in a frank and engaging manner that acknowledges his image as an African-American astrophysicist and science-popularizer, quietly noting that revolutionary fact without proclaiming it. And he takes us from his youth in the Bronx to the very end of the universe (an existentially disturbing passage, if you think on it too deeply). Tyson, in his way, is the Carl Sagan of his own generation. He met Sagan when he was looking at colleges to attend, and he did his own updated version of Sagan's groundbreaking Cosmos series. Tyson's approach is more down-to-earth than Sagan's insistent erudition. He chooses to engage with humor and in this book settles on a discriptive prose just short of rigorous. But his story remains an engaging trip through his career, from the Bronx High School of Science, through the American Museum of Natural History, to his graduate career and academic appointments. He doesn't go into deep detail on his own field of research (stellar populations within the galactic core), and there are unanswered personal questions a reader might have. Still, there is a lot here about the path that a smart kid interested in science might take, and it should be encouraging to people in understanding how to encourage a kid who shows such an inclination, particularly if that kid seems one of a group not conventionally expected to succeed. Tyson argues that brilliance can be found anywhere.

(Almost) full disclosure: The author of this mini-review also holds an advanced degree in astronomy. As Tyson points out, the youthful experiences of people in our profession are often very similar, or that there are common themes. Indeed, much of what Tyson describes echoed strongly in my own childhood. I, too, dragged a telescope to the roof of a house in the city, discovering for the first time, the first-hand experience of the planets and the stars. Further, Tyson himself once visited the lab in which I work when he was filming the NOVA Sciencenow series (S04E03).

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See also: [Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson]
and [Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone]

[Other Books on Science]

[Other Biography and Memoir]