Starry Messenger: Book Review

Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspective on Civilization (2022), Neil DeGrasse Tyson. [I read this to get as far away from politics as I could. However, there proved to be some interesting stuff for MVG, including Neil’s focus on the political center.]


The book is mostly interesting, but sometimes thinking he should stay in his own lane. Science is associated with truth, while cultural and political opinions are questionable, subject to misinformation and psychological biases. “Can scientific rationality embedded in a cosmic perspective make everyone agree on all opinions? No” (p. 71). The title comes from Galileo on his telescope observations (Sidereus Nunicus, 1610), for which he was accused of heresy.


Science & Society. From space is the overview effect when looking back on earth, which is Neil’s perspective in this book. Scientists search each other’s data, not opinions, to predict natural events, often summed as the Scientific Method. Use experiments to test hypotheses: “Take nobody’s word for it.”


Chapter 1: Truth & Beauty: Aesthetics in Life and in the Cosmos. Objective truth applies across space and time. Personal truths do not: “These are the foundations of most people’s opinions and are normally harmless” (p. 16).


Chapter 2: Exploration & Discovery: The Value of Both When Shaping Civilization. People are wired with linear minds, thinking small. Power functions (using exponentials) are difficult to grasp. Start with a penny and double the accumulated amount every day for a month. The sum is over $10 million for a 30-day month.


Columbus: “I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his [flag]” (p. 33). Just a typical land glad, like Julius Caesar’s: veni, vidi, vici.”


Neil pointed out the explosive growth of technology over the centuries. Think of the computer which was a hulking mass of vacuum tubes with little computing power during World War II, then the transistor, computer chips, eventually substantial computer power in a smart phone.


Chapter 3: Earth & Moon: Cosmic Perspectives. Human civilization is almost unrecognizable from space. Earthrise from lunar orbit happened in 1968, a wholly new perspective.


Chapter 4: Conflict & Resolution: Tribal Forces Within Us All. Wernher von Braun: “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet” (p. 65). The International Space Station was a display of international cooperation.


Neil’s take on politics (serving on a White House commission): “successful conversations were the ones that took place in the middle of the political spectrum. That meant I had to migrate from my left-leaning corner and bring my perspectives closer to those who I persistently disagree with. … This continued until the moment I realized that I was truly thinking for myself—no longer torqued by ideologies I was born into” (p. 70). Of course, scientific denial tends to be a conservative perspective. Confirmation bias is common across the political spectrum: you remember the hits and forget the misses.


“From afar, a suburban lawn is simply a green carpet. … Closer, the blades of grass resolve into plant cells that undergo photosynthesis. At what distance will you choose to formulate your opinions and perspectives? (p. 79).


Chapter 5: Risk & Reward. Calculations We Make Daily With Our Own Lives and the Lives of Others. “To understand probability and statistics is to understand risk” (p. 86). Carl Friedrich Gauss developed least squares, used to fit a line through data—essential for regression analysis. He also developed the bell curve or normal distribution, central to parametric statistics. With these tools statistics became central to empirical analysis. (Note that marketers and propagandists do not use these tools. Story telling can make great marketing.) Physicists had a convention in Las Vegas. Headline: “Physicists in town, lowest casino take ever” (p. 90). Certain “irrationalities derive from the urge to feel special,” like to urge to gamble because you could win.


Just about all substances will kill at some levels. Roundup doesn’t take much. Ethanol (common alcohol) takes more. Salt and sugar take a lot more. Cities may feel unsafe, but living in the city is actually safer than the country. “Step back from assumed truths, gain a wider perspective, and query the data in different ways, none of which is possible in the tunnel vision of bias” (p. 103).


Chapter 6: Meatarians & Vegetarians: We are not Entirely What we Eat. Meat eaters like meat. Vegetarians have multiple reasons to not eat meat. Neil presents several not-very-convincing arguments in defense of meat, like efficiency using feed-lots and assembly-line meat packing.

Chapter 7: Gender & Identity. People Are More the Same Than Different. “Matter and energy express themselves across a staggering breadth of properties that include measures of size, temperature, density, location, speed, and rotation. In some cases, nature divides cleanly into categories” (p. 126). Then, there is the wave-particle duality of matter. The probability of behavior at the sub-atomic level is expressed through Schrödinger’s cat. Color represents waves of visible light we see as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Actually, visible light is a continuum as part of electro-magnetic waves.


Chapter 8: Color & Race: Once Again, People Are More the Same Than Different. Stars are categorized by spectral type, initially divided into 15 categories, then various sub-categories. Women did the computations because of the tedious work. They now get the credit. Planets absorb solar energy by reflectivity, from 0 (absorbing all light) to 1 (all reflected away). Earth is about 0.3. This energy drives climate.


People are labeled from white to black (although no one has those skin colors). How dark a person is depends on closeness (based on genetic time) to the equator. Those close have more melanin, which dissipates UV light. That’s it. However, culturally, skin color can determine the “out groups.” Other differences include language, ethnicity, politics, and cultural values. Neil asks the question: “Why would anyone want to feel superior to others?” (p. 146). This suggests the social sciences like sociology, anthropology, and psychology are susceptible to human biases. “Arguably, the writings of 19th century anthropologists reflect the most racist era in the history of science” (p. 149). The eugenics movement started then. The way to attack one’s own work is to consider if the opposite explanation can be developed from the same information.


Chapter 9: Law & Order. The Foundation of Civilization, Whether We Like it or Not. “Legal systems at their best are prerequisites for anything we call civilization.” … Aristotle suggests: “Law is reason free from passion. … In the court of law, 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” (p. 163).


Thomas Huxley claimed: “The great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” (p. 166). Debating is about the most convincing case, not truth about anything. Everything about a debate is narrowed to two sides. “If an attorney’s power to sway a jury with passionate arguments, regardless of the data, is precisely the legal system you want, then you will never, ever want me or any of my fellow scientists on a jury. You will never want any expert in data analysis, in statistics, or in probability” (p. 171). How evidence is presented manipulates juror psychological biases. Absence of data can be a source of bias.


Chapter 10: Body & Mind: Human Physiology May be Overstated. Humans can be thought of as the sum of electro-bio-chemical reactions. Experimental maturity required replacing humans’ five senses with measurement equipment to test objectively, like electro-magnetic fields (radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, ultraviolet, and gamma rays), spectral analysis, and atmospheric composition. Diagnostic machinery like MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans are based on physics.

It turns out brain size is not everything. Several animals have larger brains than humans like dolphins. Mice have similar brain-to-body weight ratios as humans. Parrots and crows have larger relative brains. Ants can have 15% brain to body weight, compared to 3% for humans. The major asset of human brains is larger fronter lobes, which increases abstract thinking.


Coda: Life & Death. Neil points out that earth is a giant killing machine, not a happy thought, including six extinction events. Economists can even calculate what a person is worth dead (based on potential future income).