A few years ago, the astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson received an unusual letter.
Dear Dr Tyson, it began. When I was eight, I sent you a letter calling you a poo poo-head for demoting Pluto. I have since done my own research and I’ve come to agree with your decision. I apologise for making fun of you.
“It was a totally deadpan letter,” Tyson says. Hundreds of children had sent him letters when the Hayden Planetarium in New York — which Tyson has directed since 1996 — was the first to group Pluto not with the planets but with smaller icy bodies in the solar system. This was before Pluto was even officially declassified as a planet in 2006. “We were first out of the box,” he says. But, it seems, only one of these kids grew up and remembered to apologise.
The letter illustrates that astronomy can provoke amazement, awe and sometimes seemingly illogical responses — such as an emotional attachment to an ice ball floating 7.5 billion kilometres away in outer space.
Tyson, 60, has built his career on that sense of wonder. Ever since he visited the Hayden Planetarium as a nine-year-old boy and decided to learn everything he could about the universe, Tyson has been striving to learn more. He says he has never lost that feeling.
Judging from his almost 13 million followers on Twitter, 15 published books and countless TV appearances, it appears that Tyson loves science communication. Wrong. “I’d rather be at home; play with my kids, watch a movie and eat popcorn that I make with slightly too much butter on it,” he says. When he is called into the public arena, however, he sees it as his duty to engage. “I would be irresponsible if I did not.”
His latest book, Accessory to War, is part of his mission to inform people of what they may not otherwise know. It explores the link between war and astronomy, from the invention of the first telescopes to modern-day techniques to spot alien signals. Tyson and his co-author, the writer and editor Avis Lang, set out the potentially uncomfortable idea that progress in astronomy comes hand-in-hand with military developments. For example, the multi-spectral imaging techniques used by astronomers to probe the galaxy are also employed for spotting incoming missiles.
The book comes at a time when space and the military are a hot topic, following Donald Trump’s plan to launch a military space force. But the timing is just a coincidence: Tyson first had the idea for the book in 2001, although it took him more than a decade to research and write it.
As for the space force, Tyson says he floated the very same proposal years ago. “I remember putting that idea forward in 2001, in the Commission on Aerospace, and people were not particularly enthusiastic about it,” he says. The Air Force had the US Space Command, and nobody believed there was a need to change it. “So I said: fine. I didn’t make a big deal of it.”
A space force as a concept is not odd or unusual, he says, any more than the air force was an odd or unusual thought when it was spun off from the army. “I would like to see them add a few things,” he says. “How about guarding us from killer asteroids? Or how about cleaning up space debris?”
While these efforts might protect the world from dangers in and from space, Tyson think that a different threat will creep in once we start exploring space: ourselves. Even if there is a beautifully written space peace treaty, it is naïve to think we would not wage war in space. “I don’t understand why people think we will treat each other differently in space when we can’t not kill each other here on Earth” he says. “That’s odd to me – I don’t have that much confidence in human nature.”
Tyson feels equally despondent about his country’s present attitude to scientific research – and, one might say, to scientific facts. “The future of science in the US is bleak,” he says. That is not to say science will not progress in general. “The rest of the world embraces it and values it,” he says. “Science doesn’t carry a passport. It’ll move to wherever there are people to do the work.”
Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is out now
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