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Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil de Grasse Tyson

What I know about astrophysics would result in two, maybe three probably incorrect statements. That ignorance, plus the fact that my thirteen year old grandson has acquired a huge telescope and is now speaking a language I don’t understand, is why I decided to try reading Letters from an Astrophysicist.

The book begins with a prologue which reads as a birthday greetings letter to Nassa. Tyson and Nassa, it seems were ‘born’ in the same year and the letter outlines their relationship-first his excitement as a ten year old when ‘you landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon’ then the civil rights protests in the 60s which brought to him the realisation that ‘while you were celebrating your monthly advances in space exploration- I was watching America do all it could to marginalise who I was and what I wanted to become in life’. The relationship was thus uneasy- Tyson states he is amongst the rare few in my generation who became an astrophysicist’ and alludes to the personal difficulties and prejudice he encountered. Still, he has come to realise ‘nothing can inspire the dreams of a nation the way you can’.

Letters from an Astrophysicist is Tyson’s reply to a selection of the many letters people write to him - 101 in all - not only about astrophysics but about philosophy, ideology, religion, the universe and life in general. The book is divided into sections; Ethos, Cosmos, Pathos, Kairos and Epilogue, with these sections being broken up into shorter subject segments-for example, Ethos is divided into Hope, Extraordinary Claims, Musings- while Pathos is Life and Death, Tragedy and To Believe or Not to Believe. This sectioning makes it the perfect book for dipping into; you can look for a subject that appeals to you at a certain the time and read it through. His replies illustrate his wealth of knowledge, curiosity and sheer pleasure in his subject and are written with humour, warmth, interest and consideration. One of the letters, for example, asks about the possibility that 9/11 was not an act of terrorism but staged with the collapse of the third tower given as evidence of that possibility. Tyson gives a carefully considered and tested explanation of why this was not the case. Another letter from a thirteen year old asks if Mr Tyson finds it ‘horrible’ that he can’t touch the ‘stuff you look at'? The answer is that the telescope is not only as good at the hands but better -

‘and touching a quasar or a black hole would not be a particularly safe thing to do.’

This book is fascinating in sheer breadth of knowledge and examining of a wide number of subjects. Best of all, it describes and examines in direct and easy-even for me- explanations. This is a book which, as well as providing answers evokes curiosity. It will appeal to both older children and adults and would be a wonderful addition to any home library.

Reviewer: Paddy Richardson

Penguin/Random House

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