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Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization PDF

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co


Publish Date: September 20, 2022

ISBN-10: 1250861500

Pages: 288

File Type: ePub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization. People no longer know who or what to trust. We sow hatred of others fueled by what we think is true, or what we want to be true, without regard to what is true. Cultural and political factions battle for the souls of communities and of nations. We’ve lost all sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. We’re quick with acts of aggression and slow with acts of kindness.

When Galileo Galilei published Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, he brought to Earth cosmic truths that had been waiting since antiquity to descend upon human thought. Galileo’s freshly perfected telescope revealed a universe unlike anything people presumed to be true. Unlike anything people wanted to be true. Unlike anything people dared say was true. Sidereus Nuncius contained his observations of the Sun, Moon, and stars, as well as the planets and the Milky Way. Two fast takeaways from his book: (1) human eyes alone are insufficient to reveal fundamental truths about the operations of nature, (2) Earth is not the center of all motion. It orbits the Sun as just one among the other known planets.

Sidereus Nuncius translates from the Latin to Starry Messenger.

These first-ever cosmic perspectives in our world were ego checks on our self-importance—messages from the stars forcing people to rethink our relationships to one another, to Earth, and to the cosmos. We otherwise risk believing the world revolves around us and our opinions. As an antidote, Starry Messenger offers ways to allocate our emotional and intellectual energies that reconcile with the biology, chemistry, and physics of the known universe. Starry Messenger recasts some of the most discussed and debated topics of our times—war, politics, religion, truth, beauty, gender, race, each an artificial battlefield on the landscape of life—and returns them to the reader in ways that foster accountability and wisdom in the service of civilization. I also intermittently explore how we might appear to space aliens who arrive on Earth with no preconceived notions of who or what we are—or how we should be. They serve as impartial observers of our mysterious ways, as they highlight inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and occasional idiocies in our lives.

Think of Starry Messenger as a trove of insights, informed by the universe and brought to you by the methods and tools of science.


When people disagree in our complex world of politics, religion, and culture, the causes are simple, even if the resolutions are not. We all wield different portfolios of knowledge. We possess different values, different priorities, and different understandings of all that unfolds around us. We see the world differently from one another, and by doing so, we construct tribes based on who looks like us, who prays to the same gods as we do, and who shares our moral code. Given the longtime Paleolithic isolation within our species, perhaps we should not be surprised by what evolution has wrought. Groupthink, even when it defies rational analysis, may have conferred survival advantages to our ancestors.1

If we instead back away from all that divides us, you might find common, unifying perspectives on the world. If so, watch where you step. That new vista is neither north nor south nor east nor west of where you stand. In fact, the place exists nowhere on the compass rose. One must ascend from Earth’s surface to get there—to see Earth, and everybody on it, in a way that leaves you immune to provincial interpretations of the world. We speak of this transformation as the “overview effect,” commonly experienced by astronauts who have orbited Earth. Add to this the discoveries of modern astrophysics as well as the math, science, and technology that birthed space exploration, and yes, a cosmic perspective is literally above it all.

Nearly every thought, every opinion, and every outlook I formulate on world affairs has been touched—informed and enlightened—by knowledge of our place on Earth and of our place in the universe. Far from being a cold, feelingless enterprise, there is, perhaps, nothing more human than the methods, tools, and discoveries of science. They shape modern civilization. What is civilization, if not what humans have built for themselves as a means to transcend primal urges and as a landscape on which to live, work, and play.

What then of our collective and persistent disagreements? All I can promise is that whatever opinions you currently hold, an infusion of science and rational thinking can render them deeper and more informed than ever before. This path can also expose any unfounded perspectives or unjustified emotions you may carry.

One can’t realistically expect people to argue in the same way scientists do among themselves. That’s because scientists are not in search of each other’s opinions. We’re in search of each other’s data. Even when arguing opinions, you may be surprised how potent a rational perspective can be. When illuminated by it, you fast discover that Earth supports not many tribes, but only one—the human tribe. That’s when many disagreements soften, while others simply evaporate, leaving you with nothing to argue about in the first place.

Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world. Scientific discovery often carries the power to broaden and deepen perspectives on all things. Science especially enhances our health, wealth, and security, which are greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.

The scientific method, which underpins these achievements, is often conveyed with formal terms that reference induction, deduction, hypothesis, and experiment. But it can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity:

Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into believing that something is true when it is false, or that something is false when it is true.

This approach to knowing enjoys taproots in the eleventh century, as expressed by the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham (AD 965–1040), also known as Alhazen. In particular, he cautioned the scientist against bias: “He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”2 Centuries later, during the European Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci would be in full agreement: “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinion.”3 By the seventeenth century, shortly after the near-simultaneous inventions of both the microscope and the telescope, the scientific method would fully bloom, propelled by the work of astronomer Galileo and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam). In short, conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and allocate your confidence in proportion to the strength of your evidence.

Since then, we would further learn not to claim knowledge of a newly discovered truth until a majority of researchers obtain results consistent with one another. This code of conduct carries remarkable consequences. There’s no law against publishing wrong or biased results. But the cost to you for doing so is high. If your research is checked by colleagues, and nobody can duplicate your findings, the integrity of your future research will be held suspect. If you commit outright fraud—if you knowingly fake data—and subsequent researchers on the subject uncover this, the revelation will end your career.

This internal, self-regulating system within science may be unique among professions, and it does not require the public or the press or politicians to make it work. Watching the machinery operate may nonetheless fascinate you. Just observe the flow of research papers that grace the pages of peer-reviewed scientific journals. This breeding ground of discovery is also, on occasion, a battlefield of scientific controversy. But if you handpick pre-consensus scientific research to serve cultural, economic, religious, or political objectives, you undermine the foundations of an informed democracy.

Not only that, conformity in science is anathema to progress. The persistent accusations that we take comfort in agreeing with one another come from those who have never attended scientific conferences. Think of such gatherings as “open season” on anybody’s ideas being presented, no matter their seniority. That’s good for the field. The successful ideas survive scrutiny. The bad ideas get discarded. Conformity is also laughable to scientists attempting to advance their careers. The best way to get famous in your own lifetime is to pose an idea that counters prevailing research and that earns a consistency of observations and experiment. Healthy disagreement is a natural state on the bleeding edge of discovery.

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