Christmastime 1968. As millions of people prepare to celebrate, the Apollo 8 astronauts – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – are the first humans to orbit another world. And one of their photos will change their home planet. Earthrise shows a white and blue marble, floating above the grey surface of the Moon. “It was like a firmware upgrade” to humanity, says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In the following years, there was an unprecedented shift in our perspectives. The first Earth Day kicked off the world’s largest environmental movement. Médecins Sans Frontières was established. The first catalytic converter for cars was invented.
It was an inflection point that forced us to look beyond our petty differences. It encouraged what Tyson calls a “cosmic perspective” on people and our environment. And for the author, science communicator and director of the Hayden Planetarium, it’s proof of just how powerful it can be to change the lens through which we view our world.
Speaking to The Big Issue from his office in New York, Neil deGrasse Tyson says he wants his new book, Starry Messenger, to issue a wake-up call to civilisation.
The Big Issue: Your new book promises “cosmic perspectives on civilisations”. What does that mean?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I think it’s a very natural urge to put yourself in the centre of your own universe. Most children don’t realise that the people on TV don’t know who they are. Then as you get older, you learn the world is bigger than I am. These people don’t know who I am. Then we have adults who think that their problems are the biggest problems. Every decision made pivots on the outlook that they are more important than other people: I’m going to get this opportunity and I’m going to deny you the opportunity, for whatever reason. It could be for skin colour, or who you worship or who you sleep with or how you express yourself. So the adult version of this is a tribalistic divisiveness.
A cosmic perspective lifts you above that and says the Earth from space does not look like the schoolroom globe we all remember with colour-coded countries. Why do we do that on a map of the Earth? It’s to remind you: these are your enemies. We’re trained that way from the earliest we’ve ever had thoughts about Earth. So now you go into space. And you see Earth as nature intended you to see it, with oceans and land and clouds. That can change you. The cosmic perspective reinforces this, with the hope and expectation that it affects people’s behaviours in ways that are more sane, more sensible, where we become better shepherds, not only of our own species, but of our participation in the ecosphere.
Should more of those in power be thinking this way?
Why do politicians lie to us? Because we want them to. You know: ‘The other people made it bad and I’m gonna make everything better.’ Even if the other people were not the ones who made it bad, and even if you can’t make it better, we want to hear that. That’s who we’re going to vote for. So we have highly educated people – because all of our leaders are highly educated – and they come out saying idiotic things. Ask yourself, look in a mirror and say, ‘Why? Why are they saying this to me?’ It’s maybe because I want it to be the case.
You know, Brexit: ‘Oh, Europe is the total source of all of our problems. Get rid of them.’ And you just believe that? It’s lies. Lies or incomplete truths. Starry Messenger is an attempt to ask people: when you hear something, have you thought it through?
What do we need to teach in schools to encourage that mindset?
We focus a lot on what to know, rather than how to think. What to know is: here’s how this works, here’s what that is, here’s what’s that’s called. Then you memorise it, you take the exam, and then there it is. But an example of how to think is: someone offers you crystals and says if you rub them together, it will heal your ailments. If you say, ‘Oh, that’s bullshit, get out of here.’ Or if you say, ‘Wow, this is great. How much are they?’ Each of those are equally intellectually lazy. One rejects it outright; one accepts it outright.
What’s harder and is not taught is the inquiry necessary to arrive at the fundamental truth of what is going on. What are the crystals made of? By what mechanism do they work? Have they been tested and retested in controlled situations? Once you go through all of that the person runs away in tears, because they’re not going to sell it to you, they don’t have all those answers. And you are probing en route to the truth.
Christmas is a time known for starry messengers, why choose that name?
Some religious people might think of the Star of Bethlehem as a starry messenger. It certainly was for the three wise men. So I don’t mind people personalising what they read. But my book was named after a direct quote from Galileo, who titled his first book, Sidereus Nuncius or Starry Messenger.
It’s a reminder that certain profound ways of thinking and understanding come to us by studying the universe. Galileo learned that there are moons that orbit Jupiter. That was the first blunt indication that Earth is not the centre of all motion.
Venus goes through phases, the Moon has a textured surface with pockmarks. It’s not a perfect surface, as people had presumed from readings of the Bible. If the heavens are divine, and God is all powerful and God is perfect, why would God make something that’s not perfect in the sky? It was the first act of decentralising who and what we were in the universe. It’s understandable why the church would resist it, and object to it.
This book contains outlooks on everything we do in life, brought to you by what we have learned from science literacy in a cosmic perspective. Hence, these messages are not coming from me. They’re coming from the stars.
Do you feel hopeful that we can adopt a cosmic perspective in the future?
Yes. I might offer a complaint or two. But overall, I’m a pretty hopeful guy.
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