Seeing with a Cosmic Perspective: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in the Hurry

In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson does exactly what he sets out to do – help the layperson understand enough about astrophysics to be in awe of what the human race has – and may yet – accomplish.

I could talk about the accessible style, the fun examples, or the fact that you’ll walk away deeply intrigued by…well, everything, whether you’re a scientist or this is the first popular science book you’ve ever picked up.

But plenty of reviews have already covered that. Instead, I want to focus on how this book promotes scientific literacy, hints at potential endeavors that could (and should) unite the world, and the surprising political applications of what Tyson calls “the cosmic perspective.”

I don’t need to stress the importance of scientific literacy. Plenty of people, including teachers, politicians, economists, and more constantly talk about how more Americans should be studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math).

It’s true that those who want the United States to keep up with the rest of the world in those areas should be deeply concerned about how Americans rank internationally.  However, I would argue that scientific literacy is important even on a purely personal level, for any human being anywhere. Having a basic grasp of how the world works, understanding what the scientific method is, valuing evidence, and never losing your curiosity – all this makes you a far more astute observer in the world, capable of uncovering and appreciating beauty others sleepwalk past. It’s also necessary to gain a cosmic perspective, which is one of the most positive, life-affirming, and human philosophies around.

But before getting into that, I want abruptly bring up dark matter and dark energy. These two ideas have permeated mainstream culture somewhat, just like lots of people know about string theory without being able to tell you anything besides that it presumably involves strings. You’ll get a satisfying overview of both in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and perhaps feel – as I do – that the quest to understand them has the potential to be the kind of uniting force that the quest to send the first person into space and later to the Moon did decades ago. Getting to Mars is another example of the kind of unifying endeavors I believe the world desperately needs. I know that Cold War politics played a role in the space race, but if you step back and see the story as ultimately one of human beings achieving something truly astounding, maybe you’ll see popular science books the way I do, as an inspiring record of human progress.

(That’s frankly why I read a popular science book now and then in the middle of political and history books – they’re always uplifting, even nourishing.)

Which leads me to the cosmic perspective. Tyson defines this perspective as, among other things, being humble, spiritual, and “even redemptive” (but not religious). It also opens us up to new ideas while strengthening our critical faculties and compels us to confront the universe “as a cold, lonely, hazardous place,” which in turn “forc[es] us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.” It of course reminds us that “Earth [is] a mote [but]…a precious mote and, for the moment…the only home we have.” And finally, it allows us to find beauty throughout the universe and embrace our kinship with all life.

But there’s one line that particularly struck me – “The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave – an indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix.”

This is where the political application comes in. Adopting Tyson’s cosmic perspective not only allows you to do more (appreciate the universe, embrace kinship with life, etc.) but prevents you from doing other things, like seeing space, or science as a whole, in purely national terms. The quest for discovery should never be partisan or restricted by transitory political debates. Yet we too often take a far narrower perspective, which is why people can, in year 2017, choose to restrict young people from learning truths that were discovered centuries earlier purely for short-term gains that are, in the long-term, deeply corrosive.

At a time when the world is plagued by an untold number of problems, some of which affect us all on an existential level, I believe it is vital to foster a kinder, more critical culture that sees beyond the moment and the self.

And if more of us lived according to Tyson’s optimistic and invigorating cosmic perspective, I think we’d be well on our way.


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