I must be getting old and sentimental. There were times while reading astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson’s new book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization that I found myself getting a bit misty-eyed. Sometimes it was a reaction to specific images, as he recounts the social impact of our first looks at our earthly home floating in the vast tapestry of space There was the photo taken by the astronauts of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, the first to circle the moon in preparation for the landing the following year, our first view from a distance far enough away to see Earth as a whole. I remember watching live on television that Christmas Eve as they livestreamed their view of Earth while reciting the first few verses of the Book of Genesis. deGrasse also discusses the 1990 picture sent back from the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it passed Neptune nearly 4 billion miles away. Now the earth is just a tiny ‘pale blue dot,’ in the words of science writer Carl Sagan, barely visible at all.
Other times, my emotional response came more from a yearning for humankind to communicate and collaborate better, since despite our differences, our varying experiences and cultures, we’re all HERE, sharing this amazing little ball of life, the only one we have so far identified, our home that sustains us through an intricate interplay of physics, chemistry and biology.
This is the theme of the book: how science could and should inspire us to get along better. It is a theme that runs unevenly through the book’s ten chapters. Sometimes the point is pounded, as in the chapter entitled Conflict and Resolution, which begins:
One of the great features of a working democracy is that we get to disagree without killing one another. What happens when democracy fails. What happens when we hold no tolerance for views that differ from our own….Do we long for a world where the moral code, our values and our judgments—all that we believe are right and wrong—are deemed correct and unassailable.
This kicks off a discussion which encompasses global conflicts over politics, religion and resources, nuclear arms, climate denialism, vax deniers and more. Sometimes he finds ways to point to ways that those with opposing views each can be seen as having some validity, other times he condemns science denial. And woven throughout is always some intriguing science. For example, when discussing conflict over resources, he points out that space, with its solar energy, freshwater comets and metal-laden asteroids, is an abundant future source of our needs. A single large asteroid contains more rare-earth metals that have been mined in all our history on Earth.
Other chapters emphasize the science, with the politics lightly woven in. One example is Risk and Reward, about statistics and probability, and the very human tendency to misunderstand and ignore them. Here we get the amusing anecdote of a convention in Las Vegas hosting 4000 physicists. The casino had one of its least profitable stretch of days ever. Why? The scientists understood the laws of probability too well to be tempted to gamble.
Overall, it’s a fun book. deGrasse writes in a style that almost feels like you’re having a discussion in a bar. We debate the ins and outs of most of the great challenges of the day, from racial politics to vegetarianism, We learn endless amusing tidbits. Most astronauts in our space exploration years orbited Earth at a distance of a mere 250 miles, not much more than the distance from New York to Washington. It would take four hundred million pints of ice cream to give you a lethal dose of the of any residual amounts of the herbicide glyphosate that might be in it, but it would take only 20 pints to give you a lethal dose of sugar. The population of India is 40% vegetarian, the UK is 20%, and the US is only 5%. Even meat-loving Argentina has 12% of its population declaring themselves vegetarian.
He believes in science, and argues that we all would be better off if we did so as well.