“Hello Dr. Tyson,” starts the letter directed at astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson: “My question to you is… do you believe in a supernatural being such as God and the prospects of an afterlife? If not, then what, or how, do you explain it (the concept of religion and why some believe) to your children?” Mr. Tyson counters the interrogative with a direct answer, explaining the various religions that could be taught and that “most of the history of life on earth you [to the author of the letter] did not exist”. Neil goes on to explain, “You simply had no existence or awareness of anything at all. It should therefore not be hard to consider the likelihood that the state of death is no different.” These are some of the topics that one finds while reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book, Letters from an Astrophysicist (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
Astrophysics through Neil deGrasse Tyson
The previous success of his books
The books encompass various letters through the postal mail, social media and e-mail that Neil has encountered for the past 20 years. For the habitual fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the topics are familiar: the complexities of the universe, science funding, religion, science education, etcetera. The book, divided into four parts, showcases Neil’s ability to engage with the public and wrestling with the most arresting polemics that surround his profession.
Previous to Letters from an Astrophysicist, Neil had published the worldwide success that was Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017). That book was widely acclaimed for Tyson’s patience to explain complex cosmological terms to the laymen. It quickly became a New York Times Best Seller, as Neil noted, beating tidewaters of Donald Trump books. The last time that Tyson was on Real Times with Bill Maher, he affirmed that the book had sold over a million copies (not bad for a science book on astrophysics). What made the book such a success was the length in which Tyson took the time to explain the mysteries of the cosmos. As the jacket of the book assured: “While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or plane to arrive, [Astrophysics for People in a Hurry] will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines…” The slim book became stable for getting familiar with black holes, dark matter, quarks, and even the Big Bang.
In 2018 however, the story was different. Tyson published a large volume, known as Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military (Nortor & Company, 2018). The astrophysicist wasn’t the only writer of the book, requiring the help of his editor at the American Museum of Natural History, Avis Lang. The book, in general, was an in-depth story on how astrophysics and the military-industrial complex collaborated for years in the development of weapons and technology. That book, as Tyson explained to Joe Rogan, was not for people who were in a hurry. It expanded to almost 600 pages and went back as far as the Chinese Empire to uncover how astrophysics converge an alliance with war.
The book had a polarizing reception. Fans who had enjoyed Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, could not get passed the dense intricacies of war and astrophysics. For some of the more politically active readership, they felt that the book was an apology for the military-industrial complex and their workings behind the scene in Washington. (Still, the book became a best seller.) It is because of that last polemic, that Letters from an Astrophysicist was a fresh read.
Letters from an Astrophysicist
Tyson starts with a touching letter to NASA. In it, he celebrates the success of the agency, with a happy 60th birthday. Later on, although happy for all its accomplishments, he acknowledges the slow development of the aerospace community to accept people of color in the agency and making Tyson himself believe that he was an anomaly in their terrain. The letter showcases the two sets of books that Tyson has to carry. One that encompasses a fierce defense of science and the role of NASA itself; another acknowledging the hard road he had to take to climb the stairs of the scientific establishment while facing the racial inequalities of his past. “I look to you for guidance, for a vision statement that I could adopt that would fuel my ambitions,” writes Tyson to NASA in a Facebook Note in 2018. He then adds, “But you weren’t there for me.”
The overall of the book features more of the first set of books than the second. Tyson’s first chapters are more of general knowledge. He wrestles with some of the social issues of the last years, including IQ, the loss of one’s religion, and the presidency. It is in the following chapter that a more strick narrative is developed. Chapter two seems to be extracted from a Skeptic Magazine issue. Tyson answers questions on aliens, the end of the world, psychic teleportation, Dogon predictions, among others. One can only feel pity for Mr. Tyson, as he has to respectfully answer the questions and at the same time make him (the person that wrote to Neil) know that his brain created all that fantasy.
Part II of the book is arguably the most interesting one. In the first chapter (fourth in the whole book), Tyson receives “hate mail”, from religious fanatics to angry libertarians that don’t want to fund NASA. Even 12 year-olds are shown to denigrate the science educator. The following chapter deal more with the religious community. The classical debates of creationism vs. evolution, plus religious fundamentalism are on display. Tyson, unlike the members of “New Atheism,” is more tolerable of such views. He’s on record telling many of his readers that you can believe in God and still affirm the age of the universe and the process of evolution. For him, it’s obsolete having to decide between both of them. He does go fiercely to those who disregard the objective truths that science has shown, but this falls more on the minority of the book.
The chapter on philosophy is the one that readers might have a disagreement with Tyson. One can notice his disinterest in the philosophy of science right away. One reader in the letter titled “I Think, Therefore I Doubt” (referring to Rene Descartes), exclaims that he “can’t get near of philosophy without being repelled by its un-scientific musing and empty wordiness.” To this, Tyson replies:
“My sentiment largely aligns with yours. I have yet to see a philosopher, formally trained in the 20th century and onward (via a university Philosophy Department) make any material advances in our understanding of the natural world. They typically carry a level of confidence in their knowledge that is unwarranted by data and observations of the physical universe.”
You could find one of those priggish philosophers that Mr.Tyson talks about. But to paint a broad brush to many of the philosophers that had been able to establish alliances with the scientific community is absurd. The field of neuroscience has shown for the past decades that philosophers are not meer seers of knowledge that evade objective truths. Daniel Dennet, the Churchlands, even Ned Block show that philosophers have much to offer. It could be true that in physics that might not be the case, but Tyson is not making that distinction in the letter.
Letters from an Astrophysicist flourishes in the last parts of the book. After some more letters from the religious, Tyson takes us to a tour into the biggest tragedy in modern US history, 9/11. The letters that Tyson includes here are breathtaking, showcasing a first-person view in mid-destruction of the Twin Towers (Tyson lived four blocks from the World Trade Center). The great service that the astrophysicist does in these pages is his up-close description of the explosions and the demystification of its collapse. Conspiracy theories are now less common regarding the 9/11 attacks, but there were times that half-witted conspiracy theorists argued about “controlled demolitions.”
Furthermore, Tyson’s effort to educate the public on how to teach seems to be valuable content of the book. Tyson is one of the biggest proponents of the case that, “is not what you think, but how to think.” For many, that’s an obvious assertion. The reader would find that many of the problems in teaching today are that many educators don’t know the topic that they’re teaching. Tyson’s encouragement on being a facilitator to one’s children and the premise of letting the child explore his environment is not new either. Yet again, it is the adult who seems to need more curiousness to be able to teach the younger generation. This is a paradox that one finds while reading Letters from an Astrophysicist. On the one hand, Tyson wants a better education for future generations. He wants the children to be able to explore the mysteries of the universe. And yet, he finds himself lecturing adults on the problems of science denialism, religious fundamentalism, and conspiracy theories that conflict with the science.
One reviewer on Amazon, disappointed in the book, said that Tyson “needed a car payment.” If the dear reader was looking for the second part of his 2017 success, that feeling is understandable. Still, the books hold up to those who adore the universe. The key of Letters from an Astrophysicist is that it maintains the premise that no matter what you are told, “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” For a reader that’s been having internal battles with their cognitive dissonance and what’s objectively true, the book does a great deal to feature such internal debates on print. This is why some reviewers find the book to be condescending. But the reality is that it reflects what many people that surround us really believe and battle internally each day. This could be constructed as shame or arrogance, but for those who are looking for answers, these exchanges help to illuminate troubling conflicts with one’s believes, education, and mind.
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