Book Review: Starry Messenger Starring Neil deGrasse Tyson

Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has put out quite a few popular astronomy books over the years, including:

  • One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos (2000);
  • The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (2004);
  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007);
  • The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (2009); and
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017). 

And while he often runs into the thick of current politics in his interviews, his books tended to stick to science. His latest book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, is one of the exceptions and at least one reviewer is taking him to the woodshed.

Mr. Tyson says this in the book’s preface:

Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization. People no longer know who or what to trust. We sow hatred of others fueled by what we think is true, or what we want to be true, without regard to what is true. Cultural and political factions battle for the souls of communities and of nations. We’ve lost all sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. We’re quick with acts of aggression and slow with acts of kindness.

To The Washington Post’s Mark Whitaker, in his review titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tries Punditry, with Less-than-stellar Results,” Mr. Tyson may be going a little too boldly into the political realm. Mr. Whitaker writes:

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… 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.

Just as Mr. Tyson followed and updated Carl Sagan’s work, such as the remake of the television series Cosmos, he may be trying to update Dr. Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Dr. Sagan was concerned about the future of mankind and its silly prejudices, which he also illustrated in his fictional book Contact. In The Demon-Haunted World, Dr. Sagan wrote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

He wrote that almost 27 years ago and we are now living in the time of his children and grandchildren. His predictions seem true enough in a time of Facebook and “fake news,” as well as various denials throughout the world, from elections to climate change.

Maybe Mr. Tyson’s book is far from perfect, but if he can really continue Dr. Sagan’s work of chipping away at opinions masquerading as facts, then he is pursuing the same noble path even if it he hits a few bumps along the way. We may not be able to save what we have if we continue with our games for another 27 years.