Letters From An Astrophysicist

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

4,328 ratings - 4.09* vote

The natural follow-up to the phenomenal bestseller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has attracted one of the world’s largest online followings with his fascinating, widely accessible insights into science and our universe. Now, Tyson invites us to go behind the scenes of his public fame by unveiling his candid correspondence with people The natural follow-up to the phenomenal bestseller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse

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Book details

Hardcover, 272 pages
October 8th 2019 by W. W. Norton Company
Original Title
Letters from an Astrophysicist
ISBN
1324003316 (ISBN13: 9781324003311)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Will Byrnes

Yes, the universe wants to kill us. But on the other hand, we all want to live. So let’s find a way together to deflect the asteroids, find the cure to the next lethal virus, mitigate hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, etc. This can only be enabled by the efforts of a scientifically and technologically literate public. Therein lies a hope on Earth far greater than ever promised by the act of prayer or introspection.
It can be a bit of a challenge when talking about Neil deGrasse Tyson, deciding just where to start. Overall, one would have to say that He is the public face of space, this side of fiction, anyway. And speaking of fiction, he was cast in a recent Neal Stephenson novel, SevenEves, albeit with a nom du plume. He has published 14 books, hosted several science-focused TV series, including Cosmos, Star Talk, Origins, the Pluto Files and more. He is only the fifth ever head of the New York Planetarium, served on presidential science advisory councils, has been awarded NASA’s highest non-government-employee award. He is the teacher you wished you had for science, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and encouraging, and with a wonderful sense of humor.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson - image from his site

And if that is not enough, he is a remarkably charming guy, and a wonderful writer. In a recent Late Show interview with Whoopi Goldberg (at 7:21 of the clip), when Stephen Colbert asked her who her favorite ever guest was, she said Tyson, because he could talk for three hours straight, and they would all be wonderful, informative hours. And if Whoopi loves spending time with the guy, really, who are we to argue?

How do you defend yourself when you have received a letter that proclaims you a “pooh-pooh head” for your role in downgrading Pluto to dwarf-planet status? What can you say to people who challenge you on religion, God, philosophy, who see responsibility for the 9/11 assaults in celestial alignments?

This book consists of NDT’s responses to about 75 letters he’s received over the years, on a wide range of subjects. He also writes about some personal feelings and events, like his relationship with his father, or more ethereal considerations of nature. And some are just for fun, like his selection of the most scientifically BS movies of all time, or a museum visitor picking up a display information error that had been there for a very long time, and which NDT had had a hand in approving. Oopsy. There are some very heart-warming passages in which he encourages young learners.

He opens with a look at his early exposure to NASA, not as the inspiration it was for so many, but as consistent excluder of people like him. He writes a birthday note to NASA, which was born the same month as he was.
…you should know that among my colleagues, I am the rare few in my generation who became an astrophysicist in spite of your achievements in space rather than because of them. For my inspiration, I instead turned to libraries, remaindered books on the cosmos from bookstores, my rooftop telescope and the Hayden Planetarium.
NASA moved forward in its employee selection with time, and Tyson would serve as an advisor to America’s space agency. He looks at extraordinary claims, the Cosmos, science denial, philosophy, matters of life and death, his experience with 9/11, religious faith, school issues, and parenting. A chapter titled “Rebuttals” is reserved for special smackdowns. Some chapters are more potpourri than focused. There is a fair bit of overlap among the chapters in subject material, but not enough to negate the structure of the book. Some notions are repeated maybe a time or two too often, but that is a small blemish.

Tyson, above all, defends science as the way to understand the workings of the world and the universe. And castigates those who would substitute scriptural revealed truths for the objective, testable approach science offers.

His correspondents include men, women, children, prisoners, celebrities, folks of diverse political stripes and religious persuasions. He responds to scientists, teachers, athletes, and morons. All with charm, knowledge, and wisdom. The incoming letters are querulous, admiring, and sometimes hate-filled.

Tyson offers some surprising observations on things like the value of IQ, the best books to read, and an actual diamond in the sky. He remembers some people he admires. There is occasional snark in his replies, but, IMHO, not nearly enough. He offers a moving message to a fan who is about to lose a dying mother, and tells how Richard Holbrooke’s interest in science informed his diplomatic work.

Like Whoopi says, listening to Neil for three hours is perfectly fine, and I expect you will find the time you spend with him in the pages of this book to be just as rewarding. Not only is NDT great at what he does, which is working to educate Americans about science, he is very warm, human company, who is blessed with a gift for explaining science, and an ability to write that smooths that educational element even more. In that interview Stephen Colbert did with Whoopi, she notes that after spending time with Tyson, she remembered more, of the science things he had been talking about, than she’d expected. Maybe you will too. It most certainly won’t hurt to try. And you have any questions, you could always just send the guy a letter.

Review posted – October 4, 2019

Publication date – October 8, 2019

I received an ARC of this book from Norton in return for a review that would stand up to scientific scrutiny.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

It would be redundant to add here the vast number of links one could use to connect with Tyson’s various activities. His primary site, at the Planetarium, offers those in abundance.

But here's one anyway
-----NY Times - April 17, 2021 - Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks Science Can Reign Supreme Again by David Marchese

David

This is a very engaging book; it is simply a collection of letters and emails that Neil Tyson has received, along with his responses. Most of the correspondence dates back ten or twelve years ago, with some outliers. It never occurred to me that he would receive such voluminous correspondence, and much of it not at all related to his specialty--astrophysics. People ask him questions and for his opinion on a very wide range of subjects; some of the questions deal with philosophical issues, and don't really have to do with science at all.

What makes this book fund and endearing to read, is how Tyson's personality rings through in his responses. If you have ever watched Tyson on TV or in a video, you will latch onto how passionate and personable he is, and how cogent his conversations can be. These aspects of his personality come through loud and clear in his correspondence. He is always polite and kind, even when giving some rather blunt opinions and answers to questions. This is the type of person whom you would love to have as a friend.

Ryan Boissonneault

Letters from an Astrophysicist is a collection of letters and replies from Neil deGrasse Tyson to his fans and other inquirers, collected over a span of more than two decades. The topics range across science, religion, philosophy, politics, ethics, education, and more, with Tyson doing his best to impart his cosmic wisdom to his often ill-informed interrogators.

You might ask what benefits can be derived from reading this collection of letters, rather than reading Tyson’s other works or watching his videos or podcasts. I think there are three:

1. Using the examples as a crash course in the art of letter writing for the purpose of being able to express your thoughts more clearly and concisely.
2. Learning how to answer a series of stupid questions with patience and understanding while cultivating a skeptical mindset in your audience.
3. Understanding the approach of a scientist and educator whose primary goal is the education of the public.

I used to think that Tyson was overly evasive when it came to questions of god and religion and that his reticence to take a stand on political and religious topics was timid and non-confrontational (especially in comparison to someone like Richard Dawkins).

While I still feel that there is a need for people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I’ve since come to appreciate Tyson’s very different but still admirable approach. Tyson doesn’t want to shove his beliefs down your throat, unless you ask. He’s not interested in converting you to atheism or anything else, or telling you which politician to vote for. He wants to give you the facts, to tell you how to reason appropriately and think responsibly, so that whatever conclusions you come to you’ve come to on your own. Tyson’s only real agenda appears to be the fostering of independent thinking skills in his audience.

As for the letters themselves, they are mostly edifying and often amusing. You may find yourself disagreeing with his approach on some topics, but his replies are typically well-thought out and researched. The letters to Tyson, however, can be monotonous and at times terrifically stupid (one person insists that they’ve found the secret to building a perpetual motion machine while another insists that Tyson should take Big Foot more seriously).

Tyson’s replies seem to boil down to a few principles that are repeated over and over. Here are the primary ones:

- A little bit of education is dangerous. People often know enough about a topic to think they’re right about some theory, but not enough about the topic to know they’re wrong. If you think you can build a perpetual motion machine, for instance, don’t bother Neil deGrasse Tyson; build the machine, submit your discoveries to peer-reviewed science, and win the nobel prize. More than likely, though, you’re just wrong; remember, education is largely the discovery of how little you actually know.

- The argument from ignorance underlies all superstitions and conspiracy theories. As Tyson said regarding the claim that UFOs are alien spacecraft, “Once you confess to not knowing what you are looking at, no logical line of reasoning allows you to then declare that you know what you are looking at.” The “U” in UFO stands for “unidentified,” and just because you can’t identify it doesn’t automatically make it an alien spacecraft. Similarly, that you can’t understand how the universe came into existence doesn’t mean that “God did it.”

- Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence. Scientists and psychologists know that eyewitness testimony is the least reliable type of evidence available, especially when the event in question is several years old and reliant upon an also unreliable memory. All accounts of “supernatural” phenomena rely exclusively on this type of evidence, so if you’ve experienced something you can’t explain, for example, you should ask yourself whether it’s more likely that you’ve witnessed a suspension of the laws of physics or that you’re simply mistaken. Remember, the gold standard of science is peer-reviewed controlled experiment, to which no supernatural claims have ever held up.

- The belief in extrasensory perception has a basic psychological explanation. Fortune tellers and psychics are compelling to people because people tend to remember the hits and not the misses. Take the example of prophetic dreams. You have multiple dreams every night regarding events that never transpire, which you quickly forget. But the one dream you have regarding an event that comes true—among thousands of meaningless dreams—will be the one you remember and use as “proof” of your prophetic powers, when it’s statistically guaranteed that you will eventually dream of something that actually happens.

- Those who are determined to be offended always will be. There is nothing worse than someone who overreacts to an edgy joke. Every time Tyson Tweets something mildly controversial he gets bombarded by people who are destined to take offense on behalf of themselves or others or the country. We should all lighten up, not be so sensitive, and find something better to do with our time than police the internet for offensive material.

- Epistemologically, religion is the enemy of science. While Tyson is more conciliatory when it comes to religion than others (perhaps too much so?), he understands that the discovery of truths via revelation, miracles, or faith—all unreliable methods subject to the whims of the individual— is the antithesis of the epistemological approach of science based on observation, experiment, and logical analysis.

- The search for meaning outside of yourself is misguided. A number of questions fielded by Tyson revolve around the meaning and purpose of life and the belief in a higher power, whatever that phrase is supposed to mean. As Tyson said, regarding the question as to why we are all here: “I never think much about ‘why.’ Why implies a purpose set by external forces. I have always felt that purpose is not defined outside of ourselves, but from deep within. My purpose in life is to lessen the suffering of others; advance our understanding of the universe; and enlighten others along the way.”

While Tyson is generally on point, I do take some issue with his dismissive stance on philosophy. In fact, most of what Tyson does himself is not science; he discusses and interprets the findings of other scientists and advocates for a particular epistemological view. This is, in many ways, mainly philosophical, whether explicitly stated or not.

Personally, I don’t think it is possible to divorce philosophy from science, and history bears this out. Isaac Newton considered himself to be a “natural philosopher,” and his systematization of the universal laws of motion and gravity was largely a purely intellectual endeavor, not one based on simply running experiments and getting back data.

The same can be said for Albert Einstein, whose theories of relativity began as thought experiments only later to be codified in mathematical terms and confirmed via experiment. There is always an interplay between experiments, data, and interpretation, and philosophy is a big part of that equation. Tyson’s views here seem to be very intellectually narrow-minded.

Many physicists, for instance, such as Lee Smolin, believe that our next breakthrough in our understanding of quantum mechanics will be conceptual and philosophical. We already have the data, but no one can make any sense of it, or figure out which additional experiments can shed more light on the problem.

It’s interesting to note that elsewhere Tyson suggests, in support of government funding of varied priorities, that “the most innovative solutions to problems commonly come from outside of the field—from people inspired by different priorities.” He also speaks of “cross-pollination of the disciplines” as being beneficial, yet maintains a dismissive stance towards a discipline that has throughout history been closely allied with science.

In one of the letters to Tyson, an individual insists that philosophy is a useless endeavor, and that only science is useful, entirely oblivious to the fact that his very assertion of the uselessness of philosophy is itself a philosophical position that cannot be confirmed or denied via experiment. The fact is, we can’t escape philosophy; we can only decide whether we practice it poorly or well.

Overall, this is an entertaining and intimate look into the mind of one of our best science educators. You’re guaranteed to learn some useful facts and gain exposure to a more enlightened perspective. But if you find yourself disagreeing with Tyson, that’s exactly what he would want, because it shows you’re still thinking.

Ross Blocher

As a prominent astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson gets a lot of mail from people who are genuinely curious about science and want to help inspire a new generation of truth-seekers... as well as a fair amount of cranks who want to chew him out or challenge him on their crackpot theory of choice. In Letters From An Astrophysicist, Tyson shares representative letters he has received over the years, addressing in his responses a variety of points about science, the stars, philosophy, aliens, religion, teaching, and a host of other fascinating topics.

If you're at all familiar with Tyson, you'll know he reacts to questions as a friendly contrarian. There might be a straightforward or easy answer, or even one he's shared before, but he'll purposely pivot to take on a new perspective and give the answer we weren't quite expecting. I can imagine this might be irritating to the interlocutor seeking a straightforward answer, or who sees their prompt pedantically pushed where it wasn't intended, but it's always done in the spirit of instruction. Tyson has a wealth of fun factoids at his fingertips, and he'll weave them into a response that is always memorable, often perspective-changing, and sometimes profound. It's always fun to watch him in action, as it can be instructive just to see how he parries an angry thrust or injects scientific insight into matters of life and philosophy.

Some of my favorite letters are his responses to alien enthusiasts, bigfoot proponents, conspiracy theorists and numerologists... Tyson does an incredible job of distilling and defending the skeptical worldview, explaining why it's so important to value knowledge over speculation; peer review over personal revelation. I've already incorporated many of his talking points into my own discussions on such matters. He's also not afraid to suggest that someone may be wasting their time. In other letters he's answering more personal questions, like his recollections on 9/11 (he was in New York), or his career, or his thoughts on religion. Though this collection covers a diversity of topics, it's organized thematically and reads as a fairly continuous narrative. Recommended.

Kristina

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Letters From an Astrophysicist is a snack-sized book packed with good reading. In less than 300 pages, this collection of letters and emails Tyson has received and responded to over a 20 year span offers up a variety of topics that all touch on science: parenting, disbelief, motivation, compassion, education and other concerns. Tyson loosely groups these communications into categories. The correspondence between Tyson and the senders is an interesting glimpse into what concerns people. I also think it’s fascinating to see this as the effect of celebrity; Tyson is a stranger to (almost all of) these people, yet they wrote to him for advice on a wide-range of topics when perhaps someone closer to them in their community would have been more appropriate and surely more accessible.

Because this book is a grab-bag of topics, some of the letters are more interesting to me than others. The prose is also not true to Tyson’s normal style. His other books are more entertaining to read as they contain more of Tyson’s personality, his humor and wit. Too many of his responses are written in what I would call HR style—he’s polite and helpful but distant. Reading some of them was like perusing emails you receive from your employer about the latest upgrades (or—more likely—subtractions from) your benefits package. However rude and ignorant some of the letters may have been (Tyson often shortens and edits long letters and provides summaries), he responds with courtesy, respect and maturity—a remarkable feat of writing and patience considering how angry rhetoric is today and how no one listens to differing viewpoints. I consider that yet another example of how intelligent, funny and delightful he is and another reason he is so popular.

A few highlights from the book: 1) his list of books that every intelligent person should read and why (I’ve read 2—woo for me! I’ll add the others to my list); 2) his takedown of B.o.B. for popularizing flat earth idiocy (of all the dumb anti-science/anti-factual fantasies, this one always strikes me as the stupidest); and 3) the summary of his essay “The Cosmic Perspective” for a man to read to his ailing mother (to comfort her!).

A point of disagreement with Neil: somewhere in the book (I can’t find it and didn’t mark it, which is weird for me) he says he does not call himself an atheist because he thinks it’s ridiculous (and unnatural) to define yourself by something you are not. I agree. However, we live in the United States of America, a country that overwhelmingly describes itself as religious (Christian) and way too many government positions are held by people of unyielding religiosity (“I-can’t-be-alone-with-a-woman-because-I’m-a-moron” vice-president Pence being one example) who don’t care about the Constitution and are attempting to turn America into the United States of Christianity (will be interesting to see which sect wins that battle). If I lived in a country in which the population is not religious, it would be very odd for me to describe myself as atheist—it wouldn’t be necessary. But in this country, where religious beliefs infuse daily life (all my coworkers at my new job are Catholics and assumed I was too until I had to politely say I wasn’t) and you are made to feel anywhere from a deviant to a pitiable, soulless, joyless, lonely person because you are not religious, it is necessary to define your views as being the negative of something. I hope that changes one day and your belief—or non-belief—in a supreme being is considered unimportant.

Letters From an Astrophysicist is a thoughtful and interesting read. It’s not quite as vibrant and enjoyable as his previous book, Astrophysics For People in a Hurry, but if you like Tyson, you’ll probably like this.

Rafael

“Letters from an Astrophysicist” by Neil deGrasse Tayson ? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is my Second book by the always masterful Neil degrades Tyson and i completely loved it! Is brilliant and even though there is a lot of questions for this great science man all of them have a unique and masterful response, Neil Could easily do a mic drop with every answer, this book is full of knowledge, answers and powerful stories. I always pick Neil books on audible when he is the narrator is priceless to listen to him reading his own book
I have always been a science enthusiast and Neil is one of my greatest inspirations, him and Carl Sagan, their love for science and outstanding way of thinking gifts of knowledge and curiosity for this generation and many to come.
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Thank you Neil you are one of the greatest inspirations of our time, keep looking up and teaching the ways of the universe!

Mustafa Jawad

When I give a book 5 stars, I ask myself: Did I not want to stop reading? Was I turning the pages as time seemed to fly by? Did I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after completion? This book matches my criterion.
The letters are short, witty, quick, and an excellent source of bite sized, intellectual eloquence. This book is far more pragmatic than say," Astrophysics For People In a Hurry." It has all the personality and heart that neil tyson intended to pour into this book. If you are a fan of neil tyson, this is a must read. And if you are not a fan of his, well that may change after reading this book.

Mark Mortensen

In this book astrophysicist author Neal deGrasse Tyson reveals his inner thoughts through personal correspondence. As a pure scientist he aligns with hard proven facts. His NYC residence was just 4 blocks from the world towers on 9/11/2001. I’m amazed that he witnessed the horror and carnage as mere facts. Life would be boring if everyone were the same; however I feel fortunate that I trust facts, but also have faith in a higher power, a God and believe in the power of prayer.

Hamid

This is a wonderful book which is a collection of letters and emails Tyson has received over many years of being active as a science communicator. The letters cover a range of different topics, from alien encounters to possibility of life on other planets, to skepticism and so on. The most important thing that I learned from this book is that an objective reality is true irrespective of one's personal opinion or belief. Gravity is real whether or not you and I believe in it. That's why science is the only way for us to access objective knowledge of the universe. Some answers given are glib, some are humorous, some are dead serious. I think Neil Degrasse Tyson did a fabulous job of collecting all these letters. So informative. Five stars.

Bev

Tyson provides us with 101 letters--most are his responses to everyone from concerned parents to curious children to men behind prison walls to teachers to those who ardently disagree with his scientific stance. A few are his letters to the editor of various newspapers and magazines and one is his open letter to NASA on the occasion of its (and his own) 60th birthday.

The book is charmingly informative--full of Tyson's succinct and sometimes humorous responses to questions and argument. It is also a master class in the art of meaningful communication through letters. Those who wish to learn will find many nuggets of information on a variety of subjects. And it is all presented in short, easily digested bursts.

It would be difficult to give more substance in a review without giving you entire sections of Tyson's letters...and for that, you might as well go ahead and read the book. It is well worth the time.

First posted on my blog My Reader's Block.

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