By Bob Thomas
To gain a fresher perspective on the state of our current human beingness, I stepped into space with astrophysicist/educator Neil DeGrasse Tyson as my starry messenger. His book opens with an astronaut’s perspective:
You develop instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.
From out there on the moon, International politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
—Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
“Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization,” according to the book’s preface, which further advises to think of the book as a trove of insights, informed by the Universe and brought to you by the methods and tools of science.
The message is composed of ten chapters, each offering a scientific meditation on dual subjects: Science & Reality, Truth & Beauty, Exploration & Discovery, Earth & Moon, Conflict & Resolution, Risk & Reward, Meatarians & Vegetarians, Gender & Identity, Color & Race, Law & Order and Body & Mind.
In examining these dualities, Tyson’s engaging writing offers unexpected revelations, which in my case exposed some of my own confirmation biases in examining fact and fiction. Fresh perspectives always offer challenges to respective dogmatisms. Such is the value of learning. Tyson the educator is a huge fan of learning, curiosities, and humanity.
In his scientific analyses and reflections on Gender & Identity as well as Color & Race, Tyson nails with solid facts and critical thinking the essential truth that people are more alike than not. Anyone who has travelled alertly intuits Tyson’s conclusions.
Subtitled Calculations we make daily with our own lives and the lives of others, the Risk & Reward chapter, confronted some of my mathematical and cosmological deficiencies regarding the importance of numbers in critical scientific thinking, specifically statistics and probability. The author offers several enlightening examples of the analytical powers of probability. His primer on gambling is a choice ride through the con versus the very real odds involved in gambling’s equations.
In 1986, 4,000 astrophysicists gathered at the MGM Grand Marina Hotel in Las Vegas for a convention. The hotel was and remains the largest hotel in the world with 7,000 rooms. Were I more mathematically astute, I might conjure what the take in the casino might be with 4,000 fresh guests for a week. But I would not have predicted what happened. The problem with my calculations would not have been numbers, but what those numbers represented.
“Scientists” states Tyson, “ are humans too, but the extensive mathematical training slowly rewires those irrational parts of the brain, leaving us a bit less susceptible to exploitation.”
What happened in Vegas was the hotel earned less money than in any previous week —ever.
“Could it be,” conjectures Tyson, “that physicists know probability so well that they boosted their odds against the casino in poker, roulette, craps, and slot machines and came away victors? No. They simply didn’t play. The physicists were inoculated from gambling by mathematics.”
Examining Law & Order, subtitled The foundation of civilization, whether we like it or not, Tyson’s insights are peppered with examples of our legal system’s history and its deficiencies here in real time.
“In the court of law,” reports Tyson, “if truth and objectivity are neither sought nor desired, then we must admit (confess?) to ourselves that at least some parts of the justice system are the opposite of Aristotle’s edict, and are instead all about feelings and emotions. A quest to turn passion into compassion.” Trials have become persuasive passion plays rather than courts of law and justice in Tyson’s critical analysis
A key component of Tyson’s insights is people willing to learn. He quotes nineteenth- century British essayist Walter Bagehot: “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.” He further elucidates: “It is, as common people say, so “upsetting;” it makes you think that, after all, your favourite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded….Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it.”
The book’s Coda, Life & Death, is priceless wisdom and a clarified conclusion to Tyson’s marvelous meditations on what is and what ain’t, and why using scientific analysis and methodologies can offer some very enlightening critical thinking about life, death, and humanity. He quotes nineteenth-century educator Horace Mann’s epitaph as a fitting tombstone and a life worth living: “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words. Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Starry Messenger concludes with a realistic cosmological observation as to here and now.
Our primal urge to keep looking up is surely greater than our primal urge to keep killing each other. If so, then human curiosity and wonder, the twin chariots of cosmic discovery, will ensure that starry messages continue to arrive. These insights compel us, for our short time on Earth, to become better shepherds of our own civilization. Yes, life is better than death. Life is also better than having never been born. But each of us is alive against stupendous odds. We won the lottery—only once. We get to invoke our faculties of reason to figure out how the world works. But we also get to smell the flowers. We get to bask in divine sunsets and sunrises, and gaze deeply into the night skies they cradle. We get to live, and ultimately die, in this glorious universe.
EVM columnist Bob Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.