Starry Messenger

Starry Messenger coverStarry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Henry Holt and Co. (September 20, 2022), 279 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.20

I have mixed feelings about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sometimes I like what he has to say and sometimes I simply think that he is arrogant. I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish in Starry Messenger. (“Starry Messenger” is the English translation of the title of a work written in Latin by Galileo.) He says that the book “is a wake-up call to civilization.” I hate that phrase. I find it both trite and condescending. And to what he’s trying to wake us up I’m not clear. Except that he likes to suggest, and I paraphrase, that “we scientists have a more accurate view of the world than the rest of you.”

His first chapter is entitled “Truth and Beauty,” in which he tries to distinguish between the objective and the subjective. He talks about pi, (3.1416592…) and its infinite nature. Tyson writes about how President Clinton kept a moon rock on the table in the Oval Office and when people were at loggerheads in a discussion he would show it to them to offer some perspective. OK, fair point.

In a chapter entitled “Earth and Moon” he provides a cosmic perspective on things. He points out that the only human-built structures visible from space are Hoover dam and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Tyson notes, “Everything else that divides us—national borders, politics, languages, skin color, who you worship—is invisible to you.” Although he is not a big fan of religion, Tyson writes about the Apollo 8 astronauts reading the Genesis creation story from their lunar orbit. He writes about how the famous atheist of the sixties, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed lawsuits because of this. He imagines a conversation with her in which he asks if she were there in space looking back at the earth. When she replies she wasn’t, his imaginary response is, “Then shut the fuck up.”

In the same chapter Tyson shares an anecdote about how for an eighth-grade science fair he built a spectroscope from scratch to prove that the spectrum of the moon’s light is identical to that of the sun. (Hence proving that the moon’s light is reflected.) He says that he came in second place. I wish he had told us what project beat that out for first place.

Tyson’s chapter four is entitled “Conflict and Resolution.” He makes the point that liberals are not always as liberal as they believe, and that conservatives are not always as conservative as they think they are. Again, fair point.

In his chapter on the subject of “Risk and Reward,” it seems that Tyson is simply trying to demonstrate how much more rational scientists are than the general public. Thanks, guy.

I won’t go on. Other chapters had me scratching my head trying to figure out what Tyson was trying to get at.

There are some interesting ideas in Starry Messenger, but I’m not sure that I’m any the better for having read it.

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