on 19 June 2012
I rated this 4 stars purely because I love the passion and poetic enthusiasm that Neil deGrasse Tyson (henceforth NDT) brings to all manners of different space and cosmic related subjects, but I might have otherwise rated it a 3, because it's a collection of previously published articles rather than a 'real' book, and so does tend to get repetitive in the topics that it addresses.
If you're interested in the history and trivia of things like the space race of the late 60s and early 70s (which I happen to be), and how that changed and became ingrained in American culture, it's definitely going to be a hit for you. There are other more educational aspects that I also loved. These included the treatment of such things as how rocket propulsion works, descriptions of future propulsion systems (some already tested), explanations of the LaGrangian points, and how the space shuttles re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. In addition, all of these things are consistently peppered with lots of little interesting facts and trivia that you could use to impress your family and friends at parties, or that might come in handy for pub quizzes.
Having said that, I don't think the book is for everyone. If you're not interested in things such as the space race, and possibly if you're not generally interested in space related subjects, I doubt that this book would win you over, because of the article type format. In retrospect, due to the repetition, I may have even read each section of the book (it's split into 3 sections) over separate spread out reading sessions. I think if I was going to recommend this book to someone else, that's the way I would recommend reading it.
I think it also might help to be an American (I'm Scottish) when reading this book, as it's quite clear that the articles are more addressed to that audience (though certainly a lot of the principles discussed apply on scales beyond any one nation). This is because NDT consistently laments about what America once was, in terms of science and engineering, after the space race inspired it, and how much other nations are now catching up. He talks about how a revival of the golden era space age might inspire the new generations and put America back on top.
I do think that it's quite fair that NDT would be described as the current generation's Carl Sagan. He deserves to be more well known than he is currently (he also has a comedic dimension that Carl Sagan never had; you can witness his audience in complete hysterics in some of the talks he's given that are available on YouTube). He is definitely the kind of person who is going to inspire and encourage the next generation to go into science and engineering rather than producing lawyers or people going into 'media studies'. However, as he mentions in this book, he needs good ammunition to inspire that generation.
That ammunition will come from grand visions and investment in organisations such as NASA. As he says:
"when I stand in front of eight-graders I don't want to have to say to them, 'Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that's 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parent's flew on.' That won't get them excited. What I need to say is, 'Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars.' 'Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but on Europa and elsewhere in the galaxy.' ... You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy, because I just have to point them to it and the ambition rises up within them."
If only there was a Neil deGrasse Tyson in every school and university...