Handsome, gregarious and passionate about his subject matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson for more than two decades was America’s most famous astrophysicist since Carl Sagan. While holding down a day job running the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tyson became a recognizable fixture as a television host, guest and paid public speaker. Then, four years ago, several allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, and Tyson bowed out of the public eye until the planetarium announced that it had conducted an investigation and decided to keep him on. Now, after a further covid delay, Tyson is making a comeback of sorts with a new book, “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization,” in which he meditates on what a life studying the majesty of the stars and the planets can teach us about how to deal with all the messy social and political conflicts bedeviling us here on Earth.
When Tyson sticks to his orbit of expertise, he remains as engaging as ever, like the professor of a popular college survey course that students might take to satisfy their science requirement. He is lucidly down-to-earth and charmingly enthusiastic in describing the rigors of the scientific method, explaining the elegance of classic equations such as Newton’s second law of motion and Einstein’s theory of relativity, and cataloguing all the neat technology we fast-tracked by sending people into space. Yet while Tyson extols the virtue of a skeptical mind-set in scientific inquiry, he often comes off as none-too-skeptical in his discussion of how that mind-set can be applied to human and political affairs.
In a typically credulous passage, Tyson recounts a conversation he had with Bill Clinton about a rock that Clinton, as president, kept on the coffee table between the two facing couches in the Oval Office. “He told me that any time an argument was about to break out between geopolitical adversaries or recalcitrant members of Congress, he would point to the rock and remind people it came from the Moon,” Tyson writes. “This gesture often recalibrated the conversation, serving as a reminder that cosmic perspectives can force you to take pause and reflect on the meaning of life, and on the value of peace that sustains it.” Nowhere does Tyson suggest that he understands how difficult negotiating with Congress and foreign leaders actually is, let alone what other associations might come to mind when conjuring up Oval Office couches in connection with Bill Clinton.
In a chapter titled “Exploration & Discovery,” Tyson chronicles the astounding pace of scientific and technological change over the past century and a quarter, beginning with the invention of the airplane, the spread of automobiles, the electrification of cities and the rise of cinema. “Daily life in 1930 would be unrecognizable to anyone transported from the year 1900,” he writes. He goes on to show how the same would be true for every 30-year span after that, up through the advent of the World Wide Web, smartphones, social media, GPS and electric cars between 1990 and 2020. In all his wonder, however, Tyson doesn’t address the way many of these latest advances have served to sap privacy and sow political divisions, or how resentment of the economic dislocation brought on by all this technological change has fed political backlash across the globe, from Brexit to the MAGA movement.
In some of the book’s most fanciful passages, Tyson proudly lets his nerd flag fly, imagining what visitors from space would make of our social divisions and holding up Comic-Con, the annual gathering of comic book aficionados, as a model of social community. In other places, however, he exhibits some self-awareness that real-world headlines aren’t always best met with slide rules and scientific calculators. In an embarrassing incident from his own “Forbidden Twitter File,” Tyson recalls, he posted a tweet pointing out that mass shootings represent “a tiny fraction of all preventable deaths in the country … within days of the 2019 El Paso, Texas shooting, in which 46 people were shot in a Walmart, 23 of them killed.” The social media pounding that Tyson received “for my insensitivity to the victims and their loved ones” was a reminder of a similar backlash, before the Twitter era, after he compared the death toll on 9/11 to the number of Americans who die in traffic accidents every month.
Only when Tyson attempts to grapple with the hot-button issues of race and gender identity does he acknowledge that the world of science isn’t always as noble and objective as he has contended. From eugenics to conversion therapy, science has routinely been manipulated and invoked to justify racist, homophobic and transphobic beliefs and policies, and it remains rife with implicit bias of all kinds. Rather than delve into the structural roots of those abuses, however, Tyson suggests that the human sciences would be fine if they just worked harder to be more like his bailiwick, the physical sciences. “Among branches of scientific inquiry,” he writes, “those most susceptible to human bias are fields that study the appearance, conduct, and habits of other humans. Topping that list, find psychology, sociology, and especially anthropology.” In case scholars in those disciplines aren’t already aware, Tyson advises that “if they are to establish and preserve their integrity, these fields must engage extra levels of peer review and disclosure, with the express purpose of spotting bias.”
The title of the book — “Starry Messenger” — is a translation of Sidereus Nuncius, the Latin treatise that Galileo Galilei published in 1610, announcing to the world the first discoveries he had made using a telescope. It’s a touching tribute to the father of astronomy and to the more than 400 years of scientific inquiry since. Intentionally or not, it’s also a good description of the author. Substitute “starry-eyed,” and you have an apt summary of the earnest spirit and frustrating substance of Tyson’s debut as a social pundit.
Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was managing editor of CNN and editor of Newsweek.
Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
By Neil deGrasse Tyson
Holt. 269 pp. $28.99
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