Neil deGrasse Tyson tries punditry, with less than stellar results

Handsome, gregarious and passionate about his subject, Neil deGrasse Tyson was for more than two decades America’s most famous astrophysicist since Carl Sagan. While working a day job running the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tyson became a staple as a television host, guest, and paid speaker. Then, four years ago, several allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced and Tyson retreated from the public eye until the planetarium announced it had conducted an investigation and decided to keep it. Now, after yet another covid delay, Tyson is making a comeback of sorts with a new book, “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilizationin which he ponders what a lifetime of studying the majesty of the stars and planets can teach us about how to deal with all the messy social and political conflict that plagues 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 investigative course that students might take to satisfy their science requirements. He is lucidly down-to-earth and charming and 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 cataloging all neat technology that we accelerated by sending people into space. Yet while Tyson touts a skeptical mindset in scientific research, he often comes across as not too skeptical in his discussion of how this mindset can be applied to human and political affairs.

In a typically gullible 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 whenever an argument was about to break out between geopolitical adversaries or recalcitrant members of Congress, he would point to the rock and remind people that he was from the Moon,” Tyson writes. . “This gesture often recalibrated the conversation, a reminder that cosmic perspectives can compel you to pause and reflect on the meaning of life and the value of the peace that sustains it.” Nowhere does Tyson suggest he understands how difficult it is to negotiate with Congress and foreign leaders, let alone what other associations might come to mind when he brings up oval office couches in relationship with Bill Clinton.

In a chapter titled “Exploration & Discovery,” Tyson chronicles the staggering pace of scientific and technological change over the past century and a quarter, beginning with the invention of the airplane, the spread of the automobile, the electrification of cities and the rise of cinema. . “Daily life in 1930 would be unrecognizable to anyone transported from the year 1900,” he wrote. He goes on to show how the same would be true for every 30-year period after that, until the advent of the World Wide Web, smartphones, social media, GPS, and electric cars between 1990 and 2020. In any its wonder, however, Tyson doesn’t address how many of these latest advances have served to undermine privacy and sow political divisions, or how resentment over the economic dislocation wrought by all these technological changes has fueled the political reactions across the world, from Brexit to the MAGA movement.

In some of the book’s fanciest passages, Tyson proudly lets his nerd flag fly, imagining what visitors from space would do to our social divisions and waving Comic-Con, the annual gathering of comic book lovers, like a model of social community. In other places, however, he shows 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 “banned Twitter file,” Tyson recalled, he posted a tweet pointing out that mass shootings represent “a tiny fraction of all preventable deaths in the country… days after the shooting in El Paso, Texas in 2019. of which 46 people were shot at a Walmart, 23 of them were killed. The social media hammering Tyson received ‘for my insensitivity to the victims and their loved ones’ recalled a similar reaction, before the era of Twitter, after he compared the death toll on 9/11 to the number of Americans dying. in traffic accidents every month.

It’s only when Tyson tries to tackle the burning issues of race and gender identity that he recognizes that the world of science isn’t always as noble and objective as he makes it out to be. From eugenics to conversion therapy, science has been routinely manipulated and invoked to justify racist, homophobic and transphobic beliefs and policies, and it remains plagued by implicit biases of all kinds. Rather than delve into the structural roots of these abuses, however, Tyson suggests that the humanities would be fine if it worked harder to be more like its bailiwick, the physical sciences. “Among the branches of scientific research,” he writes, “the most susceptible to human bias are those fields which study the appearance, conduct, and habits of other humans. At the top of the list, find psychology, sociology and especially anthropology. In case scholars in these disciplines are not already aware, Tyson advises that “if they are to establish and preserve their integrity, these fields must engage in additional levels of peer review and disclosure, for the express purpose to identify prejudices.

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 is a moving tribute to the father of astronomy and to the more than 400 years of scientific research since. Intentionally or not, this is also a good description of the author. Substitute “starry eyes” and you have an apt summary of the serious wit and frustrating substance of Tyson’s early days as a social pundit.

Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was editor-in-chief of CNN and editor-in-chief of Newsweek.

Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

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