Two readable books about astrophysics*

Two smart people with the same goal: to tell you about space, the universe, the cosmos in roughly 100 pages. They both use the same gambit in their titles. Dr Smethurst’s 14 billion years for people short on time and Mr Tyson’s for Young People in a Hurry. And they both cover a lot of the same topics: dark matter, gravity, black holes, galaxies. Where they differ is in their style.

Reading Space feels a little like being stuck in a corner at a party while an awesomely intelligent person who’s had one drink too many bombards you with information. Facts, theories and opinions wash over you like waves at high tide. You’ve barely had time to get your breath back before the next one strikes. There’s no let-up.

It’s all very easy to read but, at the same time, just a little too fast to take in. I’ve read the chapter on Why the Night Sky is Dark twice and I still don’t understand it. (On the other hand, the chapter on the chances of finding another Earth and travelling to it is terrific.)

Astrophysics for Young People is less frantic, no doubt because it’s aimed at children. There are silly jokes, and lots of pictures, and it’s even easier to read than Space. But don’t be fooled by the title, because the book assumes an intelligence on the part of the reader, and doesn’t shy away from trying to explain complex subjects. I actually now understand this stuff. (Well, a little more than I used to.)

Given that my interest in all this is strictly amateur and I never intend on taking an exam in the subject, I’m happy to have read them both. But Mr Tyson’s book is the one I’ll keep.

* Really.

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