Neil deGrasse Tyson has quietly become the new face of physics and space exploration over the last several years. Back in the 80s, Carl Sagan was far and away the most popular scientist among lay persons, but after his death, it took a long time to find an heir apparent. Michio Kaku has flirted with the idea, and does have some interesting and accessible books out, as well as making numerous appearances on a variety of news programs over the years. But in the last ten years or so, Dr. Tyson has become the undisputed go-to physicist for everyone from CNN to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. He isn’t just another pretty face, however: he’s been on Presidential panels, and is the head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, a prestigious scientific position. He holds four degrees, earning his BA at Harvard, his first MA at UofT Austin, and an MPhil and PhD from Columbia. Beginning in 1995, he wrote a regular column for Natural History magazine; this book is a collection of several of those columns, as well as transcribed keynote speeches given at various conferences and a mixture of other essays, papers, and speeches. To find out how these work together as a book, check after the break for my full review.
The book, edited by Tyson’s long-time colleague from Natural History and sometime collaborator, Avis Lang, is broken up into three parts: Why, How, and Why Not. These rough categories allow Tyson and Lang to separate his documents appropriately, and follows a logical progression.
Part I: Why gives Tyson’s reasons for sending humans into space. He admits that for the cost of one human, NASA could send fifty robots to do the same jobs; as a scientist, this is appealing, as it gives fifty-fold the potential science. But then he cuts to the core of his argument: he kind of remembers the Pioneers and the Explorers and the other robotic probes from his youth, but it wasn’t any of them that drove him into his career as an astrophysicist. Rather, it was the manned programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, that culminated in putting man on the moon when Tyson was about twelve years old. This is what gave him the passion, and it is this, he fears, that is not going to be present for the next generation of young people. The last time America went through a long period of not putting people in space, there were plenty of new lawyers, but not so many scientists, engineers, or technicians, the people that are the actual driving force for change and innovation. In addition, and more pertinent to those concerned about costs and risks, Tyson points out that even the most advanced robot is missing something that pretty much every human being takes for granted: creativity and adaptability. We can think on our feet, adapt to situations, make snap decisions that we’re not programmed for. As an example, he tells about Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 crewmember and the only scientist to walk on the moon. A geologist, Schmitt noted some unusual orange soil on one walk to collect samples, and took some. This wasn’t on his list of things to grab, and he only noticed it out of the corner of his eye; but in taking a sample, he brought home to Earth the only example of volcanic glass brought home during any of the six missions that landed on the moon. A robot would have simply followed its programming; fifty robots, the same.
In Part II: How, Tyson spends some times talking about the Presidential committee he sat on for President George W. Bush, and their plans for a return to the moon and a further voyage to Mars. He also examines the history of space flight, in order to examine how it was done in times past. He begins with the V2, and doesn’t shirk from the fact that war has often been the impetus of technical innovation in the past, also spending time discussing the Cold War motivations of American engineers in the 1950s and 60s. He brings in some Star Trek discussion (probably his favorite SF franchise based on previous speeches I’ve heard him make), and his pop culture references are always spot on, revealing a deep knowledge not only of science, but of the popular accouterments of science that get the general public excited and involved.
Part III: Why Not delves into all the reasons we should be going further into our solar system and, potentially, beyond. He references the amount Americans spend on NASA – approximately one half of one cent of every tax dollar – and addresses critics who claim this money is wasted, shot into space as it were. The spin-off advantages are not simply limited to Tang, he points out. We’re surrounded by benefits from the space program: the cell phone in your hand, the laptop on your desk, the GPS in your car, the plastic used to make your toothbrush, the sheer ubiquity of products in common everyday use that surround us, but which we would not have were it not for the space program, is staggering. And the most important point is this: most of these spin-off products were completely accidental. No one can predict what technological advancement will bring, but bring new advances it will. His example to explain this process regards cooking tools. He says that if you were to ask a cooking engineer to come up with a better stove, he would probably make it more efficient, make it sleeker, make it heat faster; but he would never come up with a microwave oven. That took another discipline entirely – radar technology – to accidentally stumble upon a useful side effect that no one working on stoves would ever have thought of. These sorts of happy coincidences are seen throughout human history, and if we don’t strive forward, if we don’t attempt to learn new ways of being and doing in the world and in our universe, Tyson fears we will lose these serendipitous inventions down the road.
The last hundred pages of the book are taken up by appendices, including the entire document that officially formed NASA in 1958 (coincidentally dating from the same year and week Tyson himself was born), as well as charts showing American space spending over the years as portion of GDP, and compared to that of other nations. These parts are rather dry, although the charts are interesting as an illustration of the direction spending is heading, and the NASA document is interesting for historical reasons (if not something I would recommend sitting down and reading in its entirety).
I have to admit to a certain amount of bias in examining anything done by Dr. Tyson. I’ve been something of a fan of his lay approach to science over the last several years, and I’ve been taping and following his new update of Cosmos, which he’s hosting and which is being co-produced by Seth McFarlane and Anne Druyan (who worked on the original series with her former husband, Carl Sagan). This is, however, the first time I’ve read one of his books. As a book, it doesn’t really work, as there is no particular narrative flow, and the structure serves primarily to sort through a lot of essays that cover similar ground. Certain facts and points are made several times over, leading to a certain degree of repetition; this is not entirely negative, however, as some of the facts Tyson brings forward deserve to be emphasized. Tyson’s prose is as readable as his speaking is…listenable?…and I can’t recommend checking out Tyson’s work on your own sometime, whether it be via his television appearances, or via his online essay writing. For someone new to Tyson, this book will serve as a good introduction to his philosophy of science, even if it isn’t perhaps his best book. As such, while I’m not giving this book a super-high grade, it is still something that I recommend for people interested in space travel, in where we’ve been, and in where we might eventually be going.
Steve’s Rating: B
Dr. Tyson’s collection of essays, speeches, and keynote addresses ties together his philosophy of space travel, and emphasizes his point that, despite the risks and the costs, we must as a species continue to reach for the stars. The nature of the book – being a collection – leads to a certain degree of repetition and disjointedness, but it still a valuable entry level science book about out place in space.