Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

Image of Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Release Date: 
September 20, 2022
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

“This book is a compelling plea for earth’s inhabitants to put on their science hats and come together to make a better life for everyone.”

What makes Starry Messenger such an exceptional book is that most readers have their feet planted on terra firma and will never have quite the long view of planet earth and its inhabitants that author Neil deGrasse Tyson has. A world-renowned astrophysicist, science communicator, and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, his numerous books on topics such as astrophysics and evolution are written for the lay public with an abundance of wit, wisdom, warmth, and compassion for his fellow humans.

He starts out by stating the book’s intent: “Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization.” Tyson goes on to share his view that science may, in fact, be the only pursuit that will save us from ourselves because it provides the tools to separate fact from fiction. He is honest about the strengths and challenges of the quest for objective truth, which exists beyond personal truth and the perception of reality from our senses. Acknowledging that what is science today may be proven false tomorrow, he insists science is still the best, and perhaps the only, tool to help us get life right.

Tyson makes a case for space exploration, methodically countering the notion that we cannot afford it because we must fund solutions for earth’s more pressing problems. In fact, he makes the case that in order to solve them, we cannot afford to ignore whatever discoveries we make as we traverse the universe because who knows what we might learn or discover along the way that will save us.

Shifting between discussing the cosmos and earthly matters, Tyson drills down on the damage earthlings are doing to ourselves and our environment. In a book full of unexpected humor, one of the funniest recurring questions is what aliens from other planets might make of us. Might they view us as pets, food, or childlike creatures who persist in tribalism, emotionalism, impulsivity, and selfishness, and ignore scientific truths at their own peril?

The book spans topics from the moon to quantum physics to what he calls “meatarians and vegetarians” and the inanity of speceism (treating “one species of animal differently in any way”) which underlies our bias toward certain animals and against others. He swoons over our amazing moon while helping us see our planet through the eyes of the curious children we once were.

Because this book is a compelling plea for earth’s inhabitants to put on their science hats and come together to make a better life for everyone, Tyson uses science, including mathematics, to help us see that accepting and enjoying diversity is the only way forward for our species. He explains how our insistence “that objects, things and ideas fit into neat categories apparently runs deep and derives from an inability to cope with ambiguity.” But he warns that “nature carries no obligation to accommodate our limited capacity to interpret reality,” urging us to stop seeking comfortable answers so we can come to terms with and combat the randomness and uncaringness of the universe.

He shows how human sentience has benefits, as do speed, flight, visual acuity, and numerous abilities of plants and animals that we do not possess. He also provides evidence of how one gender, color, or race is not better than another and that thinking otherwise is due to our insecurity and misguided perception.

Tyson wonders how far humans would take their primal instincts if we had not developed what we call civilization, emphasizing that the law and order which purports to keep us in check and on track is not equivalent to seeking truth and justice, which he believes is a more humane and useful pursuit. On the subject of law and order, he makes a pitch for policies based exclusively on science and the scientific method.

Tyson weighs in on many topics: a woman’s right to govern her body, differently abled people being called exactly that, how religiosity distorts our views of life and death, and how to differentiate the two. He maintains that “It is better to be alive than dead and better to have lived than not been born.” Unsurprisingly, he sees death as any rational scientist would—as the end of life—and is at peace with the fact that he will meet his physical and spiritual end one day.

He helps us swallow what is a bitter pill for some to swallow: that we as a planet or individuals are neither special nor the center of a cosmos that does not give a hoot about us, our dreams, or our lives. On the other hand, he argues from a place of deep disappointment, compassion and anguish that how we care for eachother and the planet will come back to haunt us and that unless we take our stewardship of the earth far more seriously and proactively, future generations will not get to “live, and ultimately die, in this glorious universe.”