Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Space Chronicles

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Space travel, science

If you've watched the recent re-launch of the TV series Cosmos, you know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson. If you haven't, you ought to.

Space Chronicles presents Tyson in very much the same role, and with the same voice, that he uses on the series. Namely: an articulate, genial, folksy, non-mathematical enthusiast for all scientific things great and small. Here, he's specifically talking about the rationale for exploring space. It's a pretty good book, particularly for someone with some interest but not much background knowledge.

There are some caveats. The essays were originally assembled from a disparate collection of articles, op-ed pieces, interviews, and speeches, so they're a little jumbled in their overall effect. Tyson is also a better speaker than an essayist; these pieces tend to jump around a little. rather than latching onto a central thread and pulling on it.

Some overarching themes do emerge, and the collection is the stronger for it. For instance, Tyson repeatedly hammers home the relative smallness of NASA's budget (roughly 0.5 cents of every federal dollar). He's at his most passionate and engaging when he talks about the importance of sheer, unadulterated wonder--the wonder that inspires young people to be curious, to ask unanswerable questions, to find a feverish ambition to know more. (I speak from experience.) This is his answer to the perennial "why-spend-money-in-space-when-we-could-spend-it-here" shibboleth. Spending money on Earth may fill bellies; spending money on wonder opens minds.

Space Chronicles is less technical than Isaac Asimov's many popular-science essays, and less consciously literary than Stephen Jay Gould, but it's likely to appeal to fans of those authors (and vice-versa).

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