Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
I've always loved and been fascinated by science. As a science major in college, I dove into all of the big subjects- chemistry, biology, physics, and geology. These subjects, which are in constant flux, have given humanity great insight into the world that we live in and how it functions. Science stands apart from the two most divisive subjects- politics and religion, both of which rely on faith, opinion, and tribalism to perpetuate themselves. Science seems more real to me because anybody can do it and anybody can challenge its theories as long as they present real evidence.
The world is a giant black box full of mysteries, and through centuries of empirical research, we have identified the building blocks of life (DNA), the building blocks of matter, (atoms), and the general rules of matter and energy (physics). I specifically leave out one area of science that I've always thought a bit of a waste of time- astronomy. Studying the stars and outer space has always seemed to me a futile task with such an unknowable expanse. Our first priority should always be figuring out how to get our act together here on Earth and solve the big problems like hunger, climate change, pandemics, cancer, and more before launching rockets towards the moon.
I changed my mind about astronomy after reading Neil deGrasse Tyson's new book, Starry Messenger. Tyson is an astrophysicist and prolific writer and public speaker who has written over two dozen books about his favorite topic- the universe. He's the most famous spokesperson for science since the great Carl Sagan back in the 20th century. Starry Messenger is a collection of essays on different topics, all meant to look at things from a more cosmic perspective. We get so entrenched in our media bubbles that anything to expand our perspective is helpful, especially if it comes from people who have used the scientific method to get there.
Tyson writes, "The most beautiful thing about the universe may be that it's knowable at all. No message written on tablets in the sky are required for it to be so. It just is. This summit of objective truth makes the universe itself the most beautiful thing in the universe." Objective truth has been under assault lately by people who prefer more satisfying stories. He bemoans the tribalism of our current day and points to an unusual place- Comicon, where people dress up as fantasy and science-fiction characters- as a place immune from the current political divides.
In addition to science, Tyson writes about math- specifically probability and statistics, and wishes more Americans were taught these vital concepts. He sees statistics as unassailable representations of reality for the most part, and cautions readers to look to probabilities to assess the risks involved with everyday life. We are subject to a host of cognitive biases that cause us to ignore some risks like smoking and not wearing seat belts, and overemphasize other risks like violent crime and travel. We tend to let our feelings and fears dictate our behaviors, and if advertisers can tap into that, they can manipulate us to buy what they're selling.
Tyson looks at our all-or-nothing binary world and shows some of the complexities involved with such hot topics as vegetarianism, gender identity, race, abortion and the legal system. There are no absolutes, only confusing and complex shades of gray that mock our attempts at purity and certainty. From a cosmic perspective, these identities that we hold onto are full of holes and inconsistencies, and aren't worth fighting over.
He ends the book with a discussion of death, and how it adds so much meaning to life. If we lived forever, would anything hold meaning anymore? Like any good scientist, Tyson stays away from debates on religion, and he counts himself among the legion of agnostics- unsure of the existence of a supreme being but open to the possibility if the evidence changes.
My favorite part of the book rekindled my respect for astronomy by telling the story of Apollo 8 and the famous "Earthrise" photograph that was taken by that spacecraft. It was the first time that view of our planet had ever been presented.
This photo, Tyson believes, radically changed the perspectives of the humans below. They saw their world as others would see it, a small blue dot drifting in space. After that photo was published in 1968, the environmental movement took off with the first ever Earth Day, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the entire consciousness of the planet was raised to a level never before seen. With this kind of cosmic perspective, perhaps we can see our own disagreements and dramas in a new light.
Here is a video of him discussing this very change
I recommend his new book and found it very readable and thought-provoking. I still prefer books about solutions here on Earth, but this gives a great perspective from an astrophysicist.