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The Sky Is Not The Limit: Adventures Of An Urban Astrophysicist
Neil de Grasse Tyson
Prometheus paperback $18

review by Amy Harlib

The youngest ever Director of the famous Hayden Planetarium in New York City, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson (b. 1958), author of numerous academic papers and several books in his field for intelligent laypersons, pens a memoir written in clear, concise prose in an entertaining, rambling, conversational tone. He explains how he arrived at his current prestigious position; how he became a well-known astronomer; how he developed the passion that became his life's work; and how his African-American background affected all of the above.

Tyson recalls his childhood growing up in the Bronx where his middle-class supportive parents encouraged his interest in studying the stars and planets he could see in the night sky from his apartment house rooftop. A trip to the sky theatre of the Hayden Planetarium during these formative years, and experience of stellar splendour superior to anything he'd seen before, cemented Tyson's dream to become an astrophysicist. This led to: odd jobs to save up for a powerful telescope permitting close observation of the planets (especially his favourite, Saturn); a significant summer at an astronomy camp in California where the clear skies revealed starry vistas equal to those in the Planetarium theatre; and a firm course towards his future when Tyson gained admission to the Bronx High School of Science where the teachers were encouraging.

This solid educational base enabled Tyson to go on to undergraduate study at Harvard; to graduate work at the University of Texas; to a PhD at Columbia and a post-graduate position at Princeton he enjoys to the present day. Tyson's path to success was not without rigour and hardship for he had to bear the burdens then and even now, of being an African-American in an inherently racist society. Descriptions of harassments by police officers plus the questioning of the author's intellectual powers by strangers and even more annoyingly, by his compatriots - were stresses Tyson struggled successfully to cope with by heeding the sound advice that, "You can be ridden only if your back is bent."

In addition to describing his academic experiences, Tyson offers memories, anecdotes and commentary concerning: the value of education in general and scientific instruction in particular; politics; civil rights; the arts; popular culture; and his beloved sport of wrestling in which he competed with distinction until grad school. Tyson waxes eloquent in some detail on the necessity for increased scientific literacy and reminisces wryly on a sort of occasional career he's had appearing as a commentator on astronomy for national TV broadcasts. The book also contains thoughtful and stimulating discussions of: physics equations and the scientific method; the ominous prospect, according to Tyson's calculations, that a cataclysmic collision between Earth and high-velocity comets or asteroids can be considered a near certainty; and the ultimately questionable and futile search for the presence of God in the infinity of the cosmos.

Although Tyson's essayistic passages may not be as deep or detailed as those of Carl Sagan and/or Arthur C. Clarke, his heartfelt enthusiasm and love for his life's work informs every page of his book. The clarity and precision of Tyson's presentations on physics and the principles thereof for applications in his studies and for their usefulness in daily life can be very inspirational and illuminating. The author's examination of his personal life and emotional experiences whether dealing with family, racial, and social matters, offers equally valuable insights on coping with day-to-day problems. All told, The Sky Is Not The Limit represents an eminently readable and edifyingly enjoyable autobiographical excursion with a message - reach for the stars - equally applicable to youngsters and older readers alike. If this book, well worth hunting for, helps encourage children to become astronomers and helps to galvanise adults to assist them in doing so, then that would be a very worthy and stellar achievement indeed!
The Sky is Not the Limit

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