Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Scientific Revolutions: Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Space Chronicles"

While I don't do this on a level that would result in a Jonah Lehrer-esque scandal (even if this platform was bigger), I do have a tendency to repeat myself occasionally with some of my posts. I've made more than a few mentions of a passion for small presses, my general disdain of the phrase "write what you know," and my lack of a voice for poetry critiques, to name a few. I bring this up because this review of Space Chronicles, Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest collection, follows a trend of coincidental readings, in the sense of my inadvertent readings that manage to connect to another piece of writing or a story in the news. I even went so far as to do a search on this blog for the word "coincidence," and thankfully, I haven't used it as often as I thought I did. My first reading of a full collection of Tyson's work came just days before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars and dispatched new images of the planet's surface. Dr. Tyson's essays continually reaffirm the reasons why space travel and exploration is necessary--he documents reasons from the practical (inventions meant for space travel tend to have everyday applications), to the philosophical (a limited world view shows a serious lack of human ingenuity). I've occasionally caught his interviews on television, but sitting down with one of his books has highlighted a lot of things I never knew, and I found myself especially taken with his balance of academic science and thoughts on the contemporary world.

I've long deplored the tendency for some writers to "dumb down" material, either to make a subject more palatable or to condense what should be longer thoughts into a sort of soundbite. Dr. Tyson doesn't do this, at least throughout the essays featured in Space Chronicles: anything that's scaled back is done so out of necessity, since astrophysics in its complete form is a challenge to even the most studious people. However, even when equations and ideas are put into lay forms, Tyson doesn't hold back on the bigger pictures, nor is anything changed to make it "more exciting." In his view, space and science are exciting enough in their own right, and anyone who needs the subjects to be made more compelling is seriously lacking in imagination and scope. We need more emphasis on education and study, not less. The beauty of Tyson's writing is ability to take any area of science and tie it into both cosmic and human-based areas. While I'm sure he and other scientists get tired of being asked about the possibility of life on other planets, the subject does have real world applications. Even the potential for our earth-based communications being intercepted by other life forms is explored logically, even if we still don't have any proof of this happening:

"Time for a reality check: We live within ten light-years of the nearest known exoplanet--that is, a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun. Most catalogued exoplanets lie more than a hundred light-years away. Earth's brightness is less than one-billionth that of the Sun, and our planet's proximity to the Sun would make it extremely hard for anybody to see Earth directly with an optical telescope. So if aliens have found us, they are likely searching in wavelengths other than visible light--or else their engineers are adapting some other strategy altogether (Tyson 28)."

Within these essays, there's a lot of discussion about space exploration as a political act. Tyson makes a few references to John F. Kennedy's speech about putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. It would be nice to think that this was done out of a need to educate and explore outside Earth's orbit, but really, it was politically motivated as a move to win the Cold War (note: the book is a collection of previously published articles and transcripts of Dr. Tyson's speeches, so while some ideas are repeated multiple times, it's due to the format, not out of faulty writing or editing). This is a grim reality check, but the atmosphere at the time made this so. The idea of colonizing and exploring space for military or political purposes is saddening, but there's hope that the future will bring said exploration out of common, humanity-based mission. In a podcast transcript with Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci, Tyson explains the reasoning behind Kennedy's speech.

"NDT: A few paragraphs earlier in that same speech, Kennedy says 'If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.' This was a battle cry against communism.

MP: It was a political statement.

NDT: Period. He could have said, 'Let go to the Moon: What a marvelous place to explore!' But that's not enough to get Congress to write the check. At some point, somebody's got to write a check (Tyson 79)."

He also debunks a lot of myths about the cost of NASA. The average citizen assumes the organization eats up a lot of tax dollars. This is true in theory, but the money is generally spread out over several years, even decades, and amounts to a fraction of the country's spending. However, as the Curiosity rover attention has shown in recent days, the majority of Americans are very supportive of the technology and goals of NASA, since, even subconsciously, it represents a collective need to explore and a desire to know what's out there. And as far as costs? Samples from Dr. Tyson's Twitter feed (@neiltyson) are placed throughout the book, including this one:

"The entire half-century budget of NASA equals the current two year budget of the US military (Tyson 209)."

And going further, the history of space exploration is fraught with setbacks from political and religious mindsets. When Tyson's writing becomes opinionated, it's not out of a desire to rile anyone up or cause friction, but rather to highlight the realities behind regressive beliefs. While some of his statements will surely tick off some, his words are a plea for education and discovery instead of humanity remaining in the dark on what's possible. He doesn't single out a specific belief, but after explaining how the Arabic world used to be the pinnacle of discovery before fundamentalist religion took over, he states:

"Today among fundamentalist Christians as well as Hassidic Jews, there is a comparable absence. When societies and cultures are permeated by nonsecular philosophies, science and technology and medicine stagnate. Putting warning stickers on biology books is bad practice. But if that's how the game is to be played, why not demand warning stickers on the Bible: 'SOME OF THESE STORIES MAY NOT BE TRUE (Tyson 206).'"

The majority of the pieces in Space Chronicles are very educational, especially for someone who genuinely wants to learn more about the various subjects. It's not all about the political and sociological side of space exploration. For example, Tyson devotes a chapter to the study of ballistics, a word used quite often outside of scientific circles, but given new meaning with a look at the physics and reality behind it.

"Whenever you're going ballistic, you're in free fall. Each of the stones whose trajectory Newton illustrated was in free fall toward Earth. The one that achieved orbit was also in free fall toward Earth, but our planet's surface curved out from under it exactly the same rate as it fell--a consequence of the stone's extraordinary sideways motion. The International Space Station is also in free fall toward Earth. So is the Moon. And, like Newton's stones, they all maintain a prodigious sideways motion that prevents them from crashing to the ground.
A fascinating feature of free fall is the persistent state of weightlessness aboard any craft with such a trajectory. In free fall, you and everything around you fall at exactly the same rate. A scale placed between your feet and the floor would also be in free fall. Because nothing is squeezing the scale, it would read zero. For this reason, and no other, astronauts are weightless in space (Tyson 119)."

Tyson has made a name for himself in the last decade for his rare position of being an astrophysicist with a large public following. However, while reading these essays, I found myself forgetting about him as a commentator and focusing on his exploration of scientific ideas and hypotheses. This goes to show that he's not coasting on his status as a public figure, and, as he notes, when he's recognized in public, people always engage him in discussions about space, which proves that the human need for discovery and knowledge outweighs his "celebrity." Granted, not all of us can comprehend and understand the mathematics and physics behind his field, but Tyson is still doing everything possible to promote education. America is still seriously behind most of the developed world in producing scientists and engineers, and Tyson's mission to keep science and astronomy in the public eye is partly done to inspire younger generations to keep the passion alive. Tyson's words are powerful, and there's always going to be a bigger picture. I'm closing with the final statements of his epilogue, which have been making the rounds on a few internet memes. However, I've read this passage multiple times, and it manages to highlight the diverse implications of knowing more about the galaxies. This review of Space Chronicles provides a mere sample of where Tyson's vision and beliefs go, but physics is not always limited to academic fields--there are so many other implications that can be made, and there's so much more education and progress to be conducted. But we as a species need to act faster and get our priorities straight.

"During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore--in part because it's fun to do. But there's a far nobler reason. The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their 'low contracted prejudices.' And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment--until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace the cosmic perspective (Tyson 261)."

Work Cited:
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Space Chronicles. Copyright 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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