A review: Starry Messenger – Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization (2022)
By Bob Thomas
To gain a fresher perspective on the state of our current human being, I took a step in space with astrophysicist/educator Neil DeGrasse Tyson as my starry Messenger. His book opens with the perspective of an astronaut:
You instantly develop a global awareness, an orientation towards people, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something on this subject.
From up there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles away and say, “Look at this, you son of a bitch.”
—Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
“Star messenger is a wake-up call for civilization,” according to the preface to the book, which further advises viewing the book as a treasure trove of ideas, informed by the Universe and contributed by the methods and tools of science.
The message is composed of ten chapters, each offering a scientific meditation on two topics: Science & Reality, Truth & Beauty, Exploration & Discovery, Earth & Moon, Conflict & Resolution, Risk & Reward, Meats & Vegetarians, Gender & Identity, Color & Race, Law & Order and Body & Mind.
In examining these dualities, Tyson’s engaging writing offers unexpected revelations, which in my case exposed some of my own confirmation biases in examining fact and fiction. New perspectives always offer challenges to the respective dogmatisms. Such is the value of learning. Tyson the educator is a big fan of learning, curiosities and humanity.
In his analyzes and scientific reflections on Gender & Identity as well as Color & Race, Tyson nails with solid facts and critical thinking the essential truth that people are more similar than not. Anyone who has traveled has a hunch about Tyson’s findings.
Subtitle The calculations we make daily with our own lives and those of othersthe Risk & Reward chapter, confronted with some of my mathematical and cosmological knowledge gaps regarding the importance of numbers in critical scientific thinking, specifically statistics and probabilities. The author offers several illuminating examples analytical powers of probability. His introduction to the game is a choice race through the scam against the very real odds involved in the game equations.
In 1986, 4,000 astrophysicists gathered at the MGM Grand Marina Hotel in Las Vegas for a congress. The hotel was and remains the largest hotel in the world with 7,000 rooms. If I was smarter mathematically, I could conjure up what the casino takes maybe with 4,000 new guests for a week. But I wouldn’t have predicted this past. The problem with my calculations would not have been the numbers, but what these numbers represented.
“Scientists,” says Tyson, “are humans too, but the extensive math training slowly rewires those irrational parts of the brain, leaving us a little less sensitive to exploitation.”
What happened in Vegas was that the hotel made less money than the week before -already.
“Could it be,” Tyson conjectures, “that physicists know probabilities so well that they increased their odds against the casino in poker, roulette, craps and slots and came out victorious? No. They just didn’t play. Physicists have been inoculated with play with math.
Law and Order Review, subtitle The foundation of civilization, like it or not notTyson’s ideas are interspersed with examples from the history of our legal system and its deficiencies here in real time.
“In court,” reports Tyson, “if truth and objectivity are neither sought nor desired, then we must admit (confess?) to ourselves that at least some parts of the justice system are the opposite of Aristotle’s edict, and are instead sentiment-oriented and emotions. A quest to transform passion into compassion. The trials have become persuasive passion plays rather than courts of law and justice in Tyson’s criticism analysis
A key element of Tyson’s ideas is people willing to learn. He quotes XIX- century, the British essayist Walter Bagehot: “One of the greatest pains in human nature is the pain of a new idea. He further explains: “It is, as is common people say, so “upsetting”; it makes you think that after all your favorite notions maybe wrong, your strongest beliefs ill-founded…. Naturally, therefore, ordinary men hate a new idea, and are more or less willing to mistreat the original man who bring it.
The book’s coda, Life & Death, is priceless wisdom and a clarified conclusion to Tyson’s Wonderful Meditations on What Is and What Isn’t, and Why Use Science analysis and methodologies can offer a very illuminating critical reflection on life, death and humanity. He quotes the 19th century educator Horace Mann epitaph as a fitting tombstone and a life worth living: “I beg you to cherish in your hearts these my parting words. Be ashamed to die before you win victory for humanity.
Star messenger ends with a realistic cosmological observation as to here and now.
Our primary urge to keep looking up is surely greater than our primary urge to keep killing each other. If so, then human curiosity and wonder, the twin chariots of cosmic discovery, will ensure that the starry messages continue to arrive. These ideas oblige it is up to us, during our short stay on Earth, to become better shepherds our own civilization. Yes, life is better than death. Life is also better than having never born. But each of us is alive against prodigious odds. We won the lottery—one time only. We manage to invoke our faculties of reason to understand how the world works. But we can also smell the flowers. We get to bask in the divine sunsets and sunrises, and gaze deeply at the night sky they cradle. We arrive at live, and ultimately die, in this glorious universe.
EVM columnist Bob Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.