Yes, the universe wants to kill us. But on the other hand, we all want to live. So let’s find a way together to deflect the asteroids, find the cure to the next lethal virus, mitigate hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, etc. This can only be enabled by the efforts of a scientifically and technologically literate public. Therein lies a hope on Earth far greater than ever promised by the act of prayer or introspection.
It can be a bit of a challenge when talking about Neil deGrasse Tyson, deciding just where to start. Overall, one would have to say that He is the public face of space, this side of fiction, anyway. And speaking of fiction, he was cast in a recent Neal Stephenson novel, SevenEves
, albeit with a nom du plume. He has published 14 books, hosted several science-focused TV series, including Cosmos, Star Talk, Origins,
the Pluto Files
and more. He is only the fifth ever head of the New York Planetarium, served on presidential science advisory councils, has been awarded NASA’s highest non-government-employee award. He is the teacher you wished you had for science, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and encouraging, and with a wonderful sense of humor. Neil deGrasse Tyson
- image from his site
And if that is not enough, he is a remarkably charming guy, and a wonderful writer. In a recent Late Show interview with Whoopi Goldberg
(at 7:21 of the clip), when Stephen Colbert asked her who her favorite ever guest was, she said Tyson, because he could talk for three hours straight, and they would all be wonderful, informative hours. And if Whoopi loves spending time with the guy, really, who are we to argue?
How do you defend yourself when you have received a letter that proclaims you a “pooh-pooh head” for your role in downgrading Pluto to dwarf-planet status? What can you say to people who challenge you on religion, God, philosophy, who see responsibility for the 9/11 assaults in celestial alignments?
This book consists of NDT’s responses to about 75 letters he’s received over the years, on a wide range of subjects. He also writes about some personal feelings and events, like his relationship with his father, or more ethereal considerations of nature. And some are just for fun, like his selection of the most scientifically BS movies of all time, or a museum visitor picking up a display information error that had been there for a very long time, and which NDT had had a hand in approving. Oopsy. There are some very heart-warming passages in which he encourages young learners.
He opens with a look at his early exposure to NASA, not as the inspiration it was for so many, but as consistent excluder of people like him. He writes a birthday note to NASA, which was born the same month as he was.
…you should know that among my colleagues, I am the rare few in my generation who became an astrophysicist in spite of your achievements in space rather than because of them. For my inspiration, I instead turned to libraries, remaindered books on the cosmos from bookstores, my rooftop telescope and the Hayden Planetarium.
NASA moved forward in its employee selection with time, and Tyson would serve as an advisor to America’s space agency. He looks at extraordinary claims, the Cosmos, science denial, philosophy, matters of life and death, his experience with 9/11, religious faith, school issues, and parenting. A chapter titled “Rebuttals” is reserved for special smackdowns. Some chapters are more potpourri than focused. There is a fair bit of overlap among the chapters in subject material, but not enough to negate the structure of the book. Some notions are repeated maybe a time or two too often, but that is a small blemish.
Tyson, above all, defends science as the way to understand the workings of the world and the universe. And castigates those who would substitute scriptural revealed truths for the objective, testable approach science offers.
His correspondents include men, women, children, prisoners, celebrities, folks of diverse political stripes and religious persuasions. He responds to scientists, teachers, athletes, and morons. All with charm, knowledge, and wisdom. The incoming letters are querulous, admiring, and sometimes hate-filled.
Tyson offers some surprising observations on things like the value of IQ, the best books to read, and an actual diamond in the sky. He remembers some people he admires. There is occasional snark in his replies, but, IMHO, not nearly enough. He offers a moving message to a fan who is about to lose a dying mother, and tells how Richard Holbrooke’s interest in science informed his diplomatic work.
Like Whoopi says, listening to Neil for three hours is perfectly fine, and I expect you will find the time you spend with him in the pages of this book to be just as rewarding. Not only is NDT great at what he does, which is working to educate Americans about science, he is very warm, human company, who is blessed with a gift for explaining science, and an ability to write that smooths that educational element even more. In that interview Stephen Colbert did with Whoopi, she notes that after spending time with Tyson, she remembered more, of the science things he had been talking about, than she’d expected. Maybe you will too. It most certainly won’t hurt to try. And you have any questions, you could always just send the guy a letter.
Review posted – October 4, 2019
Publication date – October 8, 2019
I received an ARC of this book from Norton in return for a review that would stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Links to the author’s personal
It would be redundant to add here the vast number of links one could use to connect with Tyson’s various activities. His primary site, at the Planetarium, offers those in abundance.
But here's one anyway
-----NY Times - April 17, 2021 - Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks Science Can Reign Supreme Again
by David Marchese