Astrophysicist and advocate Neil DeGrasse Tyson is someone that more people should listen to — and with his new book, you have a chance to win over your friends who haven't yet heard his pro-science message. His latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, is an excellent collection of essays gathered from numerous sources over the last couple of decades.
Unlike Tyson's prior books, Space Chronicles goes wide in vision and covers an impressive range of topics, from killer asteroids to NASA and its troubled history with race, to the Space Shuttle to Star Trek, ultimately boiling down to a single cohesive message: appreciation and education of the sciences is important to the future of the country, and must be an ever more important priority as we continue into the future.
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Tyson is great at staying on message: over the course of the book, he repeats a couple points early and often: a year's expenditure by the United States military is equal to that of the entire half-century's spending on NASA, which has put men on the Moon, robots onto planets, moons and asteroids, and brought us incredible images of the universe that surrounds us. Put another way, as he notes in a number of chapters, NASA's budget is a half cent on the dollar when it comes to someone's taxes. If you double that investment, the United States can do incredible things in outer space and here on the ground.
It's telling that Tyson starts off in the prologue with his observations on how society works as a rational (and irrational) system, and how space exploration fits into the American political world. While it's easy to caricature domestic political parties as being vehemently anti-science or overwhelmingly pro-science, Tyson takes apart the misconceptions easily, outlining how both parties contribute to the advancement of science. The enemy isn't the right or left, but the people who don't see value in science.
There are also the spin-off products, cross-pollination and new industries that investment in space exploration helps to bring about. In a time when the driving motivation for any political activity is jobs, it often feels like investment in the sciences is characterized as the studies that examine mating habits of fruit flies. At one point, he talks about a trip that he took to China, and noted that there are more college graduates in that country than there are people in the United States, and he bemoans the fact that while Europe and China have things like high speed rail, growing industry and space programs that are picking up, these are things that were well within the United State's reach; by standing still, we're effectively taking a step backwards.
There's a moral argument here as well. In an interview with NPR (http://www.npr.org/2012/02/27/147351252/space-chronicles-why-exploring-space-still-matters) he notes that there are arguments that can be made for increased investment and jobs, but a major argument that's overlooked is the impact that going to space does for a culture. We raise monuments and name schools after astronauts and visionaries that bring us boldly forward, and create role models that we look and live up to.
If those arguments don't work, try these points that he brings up: going to Mars might yield strong evidence for the discovery of life outside of our own planet. Venus has runaway climate change, while there's an asteroid, 99942 Apophis, which is going to come very, very close to us on a Friday the 13th in 2029, and potentially again in 2036. As Tyson notes, we have the foresight to avoid going the way of the dinosaurs. Science investment helps us get to the point where we can solve or manage these problems back here at home. I know I want someone to take a close look at that asteroid.
Most heartening are the anecdotes that are scattered around in the book that outline that there is broad interest in space exploration and discovery: he relates an encounter with a janitor at the Hayden Planetarium who asked a question about physics. A cab driver that refused to take payment for a fare, and the positive and funny response from a group of bystanders after explaining that the United States spends more on lip balm than on the Cassini mission, around $300 million a year. These small instances demonstrate that the American public does look at space and science with a level of engaged interest that for the most part, goes unnoticed.
Space Chronicles is a wonderful, engaging book that rejuvenated my cynical attitude towards politics and science in the United States. At points repetitive, at others too short, it's a smorgasbord of facts and reasoning that goes a long way towards justifying the pursuit of science and science education in America. It's also a witty, humorous and accessible book that's difficult to put away: I found myself staying up to late hours of the evening drawn in by Tyson's style, and even after finishing it, have a difficult time shaking lingering thoughts of what might be out there, and how we can work to discover the unknown.